With Republicans now in control of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Congress is poised to pass a congressional budget resolution that increases defense spending, but maintains tight spending limits on non-defense programs, including education, and will almost certainly lead to a confrontation later in the year with President Obama on spending priorities.
“By passing a balanced budget that emphasizes growth, common sense, and the needs of the middle class, Republicans have shown that the Senate is under new management and delivering on the change and responsible government the American people expect,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Although it is nonbinding, the congressional budget resolution is an important step in the budget process because it sets monetary limits for the spending and tax legislation that Congress will consider for the rest of the year. It also provides guidance to the appropriations committees on how to divide resources among various federal departments and agencies, thus setting the stage for the twelve annual appropriations bills that must be passed by Congress and signed by the president, including the one that funds the U.S. Department of Education.
This year’s debate on the budget resolution was especially interesting because it started to reveal splits among Republican members who want to increase spending on defense but are limited by the very restrictive spending caps set by the 2013 budget deal, also known as the sequester. Democrats would also like to see the caps increased so the federal government can provide more money for education, health care, and other domestic priorities.
Although the respective budget resolutions passed by the House and Senate technically stick to the spending limits of $523 billion for defense and $493.5 billion for non-defense programs that were set by the Budget Control Act, they employ an accounting maneuver to increase defense spending to $619 billion. The tactic was necessary to gain enough Republican support to pass the resolution as no Democrats supported it.
“Instead of being honest and upfront about their goals, the Republicans have used a number of budgetary gimmicks to cover-up the devastating impact that their budget will have on the lives of ordinary Americans,” said Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee. “I find it particularly offensive that Republicans, who are demanding massive cuts in Medicaid, education, nutrition, and health care in order to move toward a balanced budget, have no problem adding $38 billion to the deficit through the … Overseas Contingency Operations fund, [which falls outside of the budgetary caps]. That is hypocrisy pure and simple.”
Before passing its version of the budget resolution, the Senate considered forty-nine amendments and approved thirty-five. A largely symbolic amendment by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) encourages Congress to replace the spending limits on defense and non-defense spending. It passed 50–48 and received support from six Republicans: Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Susan Collins (R-ME), Bob Corker (R-TN), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and John McCain (R-AZ).
The Senate also passed an amendment by Senator David Vitter (R-LA) that prohibits the federal government from “mandating, incentivizing, or coercing” states to adopt the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or other curricula or assessments. The amendment passed by a 54–46 party-line vote. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said the amendment was not necessary because federal law “already prohibits the federal government from requiring states to adopt certain standards or curriculum.” She added that neither Race to the Top nor the No Child Left Behind waivers required states to adopt the CCSS.
Both the accounting maneuver that increased defense spending and the Kaine amendment are evidence that Congress is growing weary of the tight spending limits set by the Budget Control Act and could have difficulty passing appropriations bills later this year unless it is willing to negotiate the spending limits.
During debate on the resolution, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) hinted that Republicans would be willing to take another look at the spending caps. Such action could lead to negotiations with President Obama around a broader budget deal that could raise spending caps and lead to increased funding for defense and domestic programs alike.
In the interim, representatives from the House and Senate are expected to negotiate a final version of the budget resolution when Congress returns from its two-week recess on April 13.