The Intersection: Feb 2011

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The Budget: Politics and Process

The President’s annual budget request traditionally provides the baseline for policy and budget negotiations between the two political parties, legislative chambers and the executive branch of government.  Changes to the budget are typically incremental, and in recent years have raised rather than lowered spending.  All of the moving parts in the budget debate – political parties, the House and Senate, and the executive branch – simply have had to reconcile themselves to higher spending levels.  The debate has been around how much higher that spending will go. Historically, then, the budget process has been one of reconcilable differences, ultimately resolved without too much controversy or consequence for either side of the political aisle.  Our current budget debate holds that process in contempt.

Since the President’s budget was delivered to the new Congress last week, the House has turned that budget tradition on its head.  First, Tea Party members of the House Republican Conference successfully demanded that the Republican leadership radically revise and expand their proposed cuts to President Obama’s request, ultimately bringing the total cuts close to the campaign promise of $100 billion.  Next, these same House members passed a budget that includes $61 billion in cuts before leaving town for the Presidents’ Day recess.

Concurrent to the disappearing budget tradition of reconcilable differences has been another tradition the new Republican leadership has abandoned: the historic ban on offering amendments to pending legislation on the House floor.  The one-party rule and strong leadership of the House in the past has almost always limited both the amount of floor debate and the introduction of additional amendments that were not approved in advance by party leadership or the powerful Rules Committee. Now, keeping a promise, House leadership is allowing individual members to offer amendments with very little restriction.

One of the first such uses of this new individual power came in an amendment that eliminated funding for a Department of Defense program to build an alternative jet engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – redundant funding for an engine that already exists. This particular cut was significant as a harbinger of the severe and uncompromising nature of the newly elected Republicans: that engine would have been built in the 8th congressional district of Ohio, otherwise known as the home district of Speaker of the House John Boehner. Clearly, no one – no matter how powerful – is immune to the effects of the zeal for budget cuts and the new rules governing the House.

These two concurrent developments – a penchant for budget reductions unlike anything we have seen in a generation, and an increasingly fluid and unpredictable set of House rules and customs – means that, at least in the House of Representatives, the past is no longer a likely indicator of future behavior.

Now, the budget action shifts briefly to the Senate, where we will see these traditionally more moderate legislators grapple with these budget cuts.

This edition of The Intersection helps detail some of those key political and budget questions facing Congress, the President and the country.

Hold on for the ride.

Robert Hoopes


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