Political Undercurrents Raise Big Questions for 2013 Budget

by Rebecca Farley on March 8, 2012

Congress has begun deliberating the 2013 budget. But, like much in Washington, it will not be a simple debate. This year’s appropriations process is complicated by election-year political dynamics and tensions among the members of each party’s caucus. With each side hurling partisan rhetoric and accusations of irresponsibility at the other, it makes sense to take a deeper look at the five major political undercurrents that will shape the outcomes of this year’s budget debate.

1.  Will the House be able to pass a budget? The Republican House leadership is confronting a math problem as it tries to figure out how to pass its budget resolution, which sets out top-line spending numbers for the entire federal budget. A bill must win 218 votes to pass. Republicans currently hold 242 seats, a solid majority. Senior members of the House Appropriations Committee are urging the Republican leadership to begin with a budget blueprint of $1.047 trillion, the amount agreed to in last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA). But a large faction of Republican deficit hawks believe the BCA did not go far enough in cutting federal spending, and instead are pushing for a top-line figure of $931 billion.

It is far from clear whether a plan with that level of cuts could win the support of 218 members of the House Republican caucus. Yet, if the fiscal conservatives defect from a bill with higher spending levels, the leadership will need to win votes from Democrats in order to pass a budget – and Democrats are unlikely to support it unless they win significant concessions from the Republican leadership.

Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) summed up the dilemma in a quote reported by Roll Call: “If you’ve got a group of people [fiscal hawks] that are going to vote ‘no’ no matter what because any money is too much money, then you’re going to need Democratic support, and that means the number has to go — guess what? — up to [$1.047 trillion].” Yet, if Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) incorporates his major overhaul of entitlement programs like Medicaid into the budget resolution, Democrats may refuse to back the budget regardless of other factors – leaving the Republican leadership with the task of reconciling the factions within its own caucus to find a bill that can win 218 votes. 

2. Will primary and general election challenges to incumbent legislators pressure them into supporting steep budget cuts? Over the last several years, the tea party movement has persistently pushed Congress to slash the federal budget. With the tea party energized around this issue, many incumbent legislators – particularly moderate Republicans – are facing challenges from local activists who accuse them of contributing to wasteful federal spending.

Simultaneously, many Democrats in moderate- to conservative-leaning districts have found themselves facing Republican challengers who want to make federal spending the centerpiece of their campaigns. In this political climate, even supporting the BCA cuts is not necessarily enough to prove one’s credentials as a supporter of cutting government spending. These legislators whose seats are at risk are growing wary of opening themselves to charges of fiscal irresponsibility, and some may cast their budget votes with an eye towards protecting their seats in November.

3. How will entitlement reforms be incorporated into the budget? There is widespread – though not universal – agreement in Congress that something must be done about the growing costs of entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The big question is how to achieve this goal – and whether any single proposal for entitlement reform can actually win majority support in both chambers of Congress.

Last year, Democrats slammed Republicans for their adoption of Rep. Ryan’s plan to overhaul Medicare, filling the media and airwaves with accusations that the Ryan plan would “end Medicare as we know it.” The plan was ultimately not adopted, and some Republicans may be wary of re-opening that debate this year. Yet, given the plan’s high level of savings ($800 billion over 10 years), some Republicans may accept nothing less than the Ryan plan. Meanwhile, President Obama has proposed a different plan that would save $364 billion from Medicaid and Medicare. Some Democrats will support this proposal – but others will reject it outright because of its cuts to the programs.

4. Will “sequestration” go into effect? Sequestration – the $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts scheduled to go into effect in 2013 under the terms of the BCA – is the shadow hanging over all of these other issues. It is also the biggest unknown as Congress heads into the appropriations process. Most legislators do not like the idea of indiscriminately cutting spending across the full range of federal discretionary programs. This makes sense, because sequestration was purposefully devised to be an unpalatable alternative to encourage last year’s Supercommittee to negotiate an equal amount of savings in the budget. Yet, finding a majority of both chambers to support any particular plan for repealing sequestration will be difficult. Most Democrats have not said much on the topic, but many Republicans have been vocal about their desire to repeal the automatic cuts to defense programs (while leaving the rest in place).

Any proposal will run up against the same budget pressures noted earlier – with a substantial faction of lawmakers insisting that all new spending (or all foregone savings) be offset with cost cuts elsewhere, how will Congress pay for a partial or full repeal of sequestration? Democrats have suggested “revenue raisers” such as closing tax loopholes as a solution, but this is a nonstarter with the most conservative fiscal hawks. On the other hand, the fiscal hawks’ proposals to reduce the budget through spending cuts alone has not gone over well with most Democrats.

5. …Which brings us to the lame duck session of Congress. While lawmakers are in the heat of their re-election campaigns, it is unlikely that they will be able to make progress on any of these controversial issues. In fact, much of the legislative business for the year will be pushed off until after November 6. This means that the lame duck session – that is, the period of time after the election but before the new Congress is sworn in – will be a critically important juncture when lawmakers move quickly to strike deals on many of these outstanding issues. How the lame duck session will play out is entirely unknown at this point. It will depend on whether either party gains or loses control of one of the chambers of Congress, as well as the outcome of the presidential election.

Although the lame duck session will not take place until November, it is still crucial for our field to make our voices heard throughout the year on issues of importance to mental health and addictions. The National Council invites you to attend our Public Policy Institute and Hill Day on June 25-26 to discuss the budget and other important issues with your legislators in person. We also encourage you to respond to our Action Alerts and other opportunities to speak up for behavioral health in the halls of Congress. The actions we take now will lay the groundwork for success during the lame duck session!


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