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March 26, 2015

Posts in "Budget Wars"

March 26, 2015

Voting Marathon: More Test Marketing Than Attack Ads

Begich was able to deflect campaign attack ads stemming from the vote-a-rama. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Begich was able to deflect campaign attack ads stemming from the Senate’s vote-a-rama. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators readying their patience, their reading material and even their bladders for the annual ritual known as the “vote-a-rama” may rightfully be getting ready to ask, “Will it be worth it?”

The answer, predictably, depends on who’s posing the question. A look back over the past decade reveals a divide that countermands the conventional wisdom. For those wishing to make life miserable in the next elections for their Senate colleagues across the aisle, the answer is a version of, “Not so much.” For those hoping to uncover hidden pockets of legislative momentum, the answer is, “Sometimes.” Full story

March 25, 2015

Why the ‘Doc Fix’ Deal Has Senate in Something of a Fix

Boehner seems pleased he's worked out a deal with Pelosi on the 'doc fix.' (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Boehner seemed pleased Tuesday that he’s worked out a deal with Pelosi on the “doc fix.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The odds have crested the 50-50 threshold for what would surely become one of the year’s biggest legislative achievements — an overhaul of how doctors and other Medicare providers get paid. And the usual encrusted ideological positioning, at both ends of the political spectrum, is no longer the biggest obstacle.

Instead, what’s standing in the way is a springtime functionality gap between the Capitol’s two wings. Full story

March 23, 2015

Why the GOP Will Likely Attack the Potemkin White House

If budget resolutions are aspirational, sketching the big picture Congress envisions for government, then spending bills are the polar opposite: Blueprints that lawmakers micromanage down to the smallest line item.

As arguments began over budgetary targets measured in multiples of billions, another annual ritual climaxed elsewhere on the Hill last week: Appropriations subcommittees were picking nits measured in the low-end millions (sometimes less) at 30 different hearings. A dozen more are planned before spring recess starts at the end of this week.

Full story

March 18, 2015

Republican Budget Is Governance Test

The budget release gives parties a chance to showcase their priorities — will Republicans be on the same page? (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The release of the GOP budget blueprint gives both parties a chance to showcase their priorities — will Republicans be on the same page? (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The annual budget resolution has several purposes. In theory, it’s a mission statement on the proper role of government and a mirror on priorities for the coming decade. At a more practical level, it decides the limit on lawmaker-driven spending for the coming year and smoothes the path toward ambitious changes in federal policy.

And at times when one side controls all of Congress, the fiscal blueprint provides something particularly important: It’s the year’s clearest test of the governing competence of the party in power.

Full story

February 3, 2015

Deep-Sixing 529s Could Add Up to Zero for Tax Overhaul

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In divided government, it’s nothing special for a presidential budget to be immediately dismissed as dead on arrival in Congress. It’s much rarer for the president himself to whack an important piece of his budget a full week before delivery.

President Barack Obama’s swift killing of a proposal to effectively eliminate the college savings accounts known as 529s is instructive about this year’s legislative dynamic because it connects two emerging story lines: The efforts by both parties to be perceived as doing the most for the middle class and the drive toward the biggest overhaul of the tax code in a generation.

Full story

December 2, 2014

Lessons for Lovers of Long-Shelved Budget Reconciliation

Democrats like then-Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez protested Republicans using reconciliation in 2005. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Democrats, including then-Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez, protested the Republicans using reconciliation in 2005. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Maybe if it was called “the gridlock slayer” instead of “budget reconciliation,” more people in the Capitol’s orbit would be getting excited about the revival of a form of legislative magic that hasn’t been practiced in almost five years.

One of the biggest congressional stories of 2015 is going to be how the Republicans, in total control for the first time in eight years, conjure many of their boldest and fondest policymaking desires into a single legislative punch and then whisk the huge behemoth past Democratic senators stripped of their normal filibuster powers. The only potential mystery is whether they’ll end up watching helplessly as the entire conservative fireball gets vaporized with a few swooshes of President Barack Obama’s pen.

That’s because the sorcery of reconciliation, while very powerful, has an even more forceful antidote: the veto.

For those who’ve arrived on the Hill since the last midterms — after swearing-in day on Jan. 6, that will include at least 44 senators and about 48 percent of the House — a very short course in the recently moribund budget process may be helpful as a starting point. Full story

September 30, 2014

Shutdown as Campaign Issue? That Was So Last Year

The government shutdown standoff in 2013. What a difference a year makes. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Democrats campaigned against the government shutdown. What a difference a year makes. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Even before the government started shutting down, one year ago Tuesday night, it seemed a sure bet that throughout the coming campaign congressional Republicans would be made to rue the political consequences of their showdown strategy.

Ample evidence to support that theory cropped up all over the country by the middle of October, a barrage of attack ads that started airing right after the GOP sued for peace and normal federal operations resumed.

But, five weeks before Election Day, that budget standoff has all but vanished as a polarizing issue. Democrats — once giddy at the prospect of riding a wave of voter antagonism toward the Republicans for pushing their confrontational approach so far — are now counting on an almost entirely different set of issues and arguments to drive their base to the polls and hold off gains by the other side. Full story

July 23, 2014

Spending Impasse Solidifies With Midterm Results Holding Next Move

Reid once had grand plans. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Reid once had grand plans. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

This week notwithstanding, this summer on the Hill has been less sticky than usual. But it’s shaping up to be as somnolent as ever.

The days leading up to the August recess are by custom dedicated to some of the year’s defining and politically consequential matters: A deal holding down student loan interest rates last year, showdown votes on taxes and drought relief in 2012, the last minute averting of government default in 2011, and confirmations of Supreme Court justices the two previous summers.

This time, no climatic or dramatic get-out-of-town roll call is in the offing. There won’t be a quick fix for the child migrant crisis, and there’s only an outside chance for a deal to patch up the veterans’ medical care system. Congress will agree to keep highway construction funds flowing for just nine months, but that’s just a classic can-kicking maneuver.

The election year void was supposed to be filled with clamorous debates on appropriations bills, which both House and Senate leaders promised would produce some unusually timely progress for this year’s budget process. That’s not happening, and it’s not going to happen. Full story

July 10, 2014

Politics, Not Policy, Shape Bridge Over Highway Cliff

Lawmakers are struggling with a long-term solution for funding the nation's transportation construction. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Lawmakers are still struggling with a long-term solution to fund transportation construction. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Thursday will see this year’s most consequential vote in the once-mighty House Ways and Means Committee — to propose one of the more assertive legislative punts in recent memory.

The panel will get behind a plan for patching the gaping chasm in the Highway Trust Fund for the next 10 months, after which the fundamental fiscal flaw in the nation’s main public works program will be exposed once again. House Republicans, not worried about losing control of the chamber this fall, have concluded that’s when they stand their best chance of driving a long-term solution.

The Senate is looking at a totally different approach, one that wraps the funding problem in caution tape for only five months. The Democrats there are keenly aware they may have to turn over the keys to the GOP come January, so they view the lame-duck session as potentially their last best chance to come up with a lasting fix to a problem that’s been festering for years.

Put another way, this month’s big fight over how to sidestep the edge of the transportation funding cliff is not going to be about remaking an outdated policy. Not surprising this close to an election, political positioning is at the heart of the dispute — which only will determine which party can claim the upper hand when the real debate begins. Full story

June 25, 2014

What Cochran’s Win Means for Hill Spending

Cochran talks in May with a constituent in Olive Branch, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Cochran talks in May with a constituent in Olive Branch, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A congressional dead man walking just days ago, Thad Cochran has instead become one of the most influential players in the coming Congress. The senator who looked to become the tea party movement’s biggest scalp of 2014 is now in position to be the small government conservatives’ worst nightmare of 2015.

Cochran’s upset runoff victory has made him a totally safe bet for a seventh term, and also increased by a small notch the prospect that he and his fellow Republicans could win control of the Senate this fall. If that happens, Cochran has not only the seniority but also the vanquished victor’s clout necessary to claim the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee — where he would surely restore some of the spend-along-to-get-along spirit of bipartisan collegiality that drives insurgents on the right absolutely nuts.

Because the current limits on discretionary spending will be replaced by tightening sequester caps on domestic and military outlays for the remainder of the decade, Cochran would be legally powerless to break the bank during the four years he might be chairman. (He’d have to give up the gavel at the end of 2018, when he will turn 81, because the GOP has term limits and he ran Appropriations for two years in the past decade.)

What’s more, the ideological dynamics of the Senate Republican Conference would make it highly unwise and probably impossible for Cochran to achieve a restoration of the old-time appropriations culture, in which both sides are willing to give in on plenty so they might gain a little — and still get home on time. For starters, if there’s switch in party control, the GOP membership on Appropriations would expand next year. That means the dominant voices would belong to the younger generation of fiscal hard-liners, no longer the senior accommodationists such as Cochran. Full story

June 15, 2014

Latest Budget Skirmishes: From School Lunch to Immigration

Two young children pass out plates to promote passage of a school nutrition bill in 2010. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Appropriations is supposed to be the exception to the rule that Congress will be minimally productive this year, and the recent flurry of action on the annual money bills has made it appear that way.

Just beneath the surface, though, lies a lengthening list of disagreements over spending priorities and policy shifts. They are not only between Republicans and Democrats on the Hill, but also between Congress and the Obama administration.

Half a dozen major confrontations have surfaced just in the past week — even while progress has appeared steady.

Nine of the dozen appropriations bills have at least started down the legislative assembly line. The House is on course to pass its fifth measure this week, and Eric Cantor says moving as many as possible is his main goal before relinquishing the majority leader post at the end of July. The Senate has set the next two weeks aside for debating a package containing three of the politically easier domestic bills.

Yet no one in the know is holding out hope for answering all the myriad where-the-money-goes questions by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year and also when lawmakers plan to pack up for a month of full-time campaigning. That means a continuing resolution will surely have to keep most (if not all) of the government operating at least to the middle of November, when the lame-duck session begins and Republicans know whether they’ll have more power next year.

The end result, for now, is a real sense of disconnect. One the one hand, there’s a superficial steadiness to the appropriations process, a break from many years of chaos from the start. On the other hand, there are plenty of signs that a long period of the customary messiness lies ahead.

Here are five disputes that have recently blossomed, each of which has the potential to complicate this year’s budget debate until its closing days. Full story

April 27, 2014

As Congress Returns for 9-Week Slog, 5 Areas Are Ripe for Compromise

Congress returns Monday afternoon for its longest run of the year — nine straight weeks when the lights will be on in at least one chamber. And, for so many glimmers of policymaking hope, it’s getting close to now-or-never time.

The House will be gone again in two weeks, the Senate will take off all of Memorial Day week and the House will be dark again the first week in June. But the next bicameral break is not until June 30 through July 4.

But don’t be fooled by the slog from spring into summer that’s now getting started. For the 113th Congress, it’s later than you may think.

After Independence Day, there are just four weeks until the August recess, which lasts five weeks, including the week starting on Labor Day, followed by maybe as few as a dozen days in session before early October. That’s when the House majority leadership has promised members they can go home to campaign full time, and the Senate’s likely to follow suit.

That’s not much time for genuine legislating, especially given that both parties plan to spend much of the time using the Capitol as a sound stage for their political messaging. This week, for example, the Democrats who run the Senate will make a big show of their obviously-going-nowhere legislation to raise the minimum wage by 39 percent in just two years. And the Republicans who run the House will go after headlines with their entirely-for-show vote to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the agency’s scrutiny of conservative political groups.

But there are still dozens of members in both parties working in the shadows toward deals that would refute the conventional wisdom that nothing will get done this election year. Serious talks are under way about how to finance the next generation of road construction, once the highway trust fund is emptied later in the year; how to meaningfully shrink the Postal Service’s overhead, and how to get a majority of House Republicans to “yes” on an immigration overhaul.

Any breakthroughs on those fronts are probably a season away. But here are five areas that remain ripe for important accomplishment in the next two months: Full story

April 1, 2014

Ryan Budget Is High-Risk, Modest-Reward Strategy in an Election Year

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

An ocean of figures fill the final fiscal blueprint Paul D. Ryan will unveil as chairman of the House Budget Committee. But the number that matters most never appears: 16.

That’s the maximum number of Republicans who can turn their back on the budget resolution when it comes before the full House next week without dooming the caucus and its most nationally prominent figure to an embarrassing election year failure.

Full story

March 28, 2014

Congress Will Allow Government Retirement System to Stay in the Cave Age

GOP Rep. Mike Kelly represents 'Sinkhole of Bureaucracy' in Boyers, Pa. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Kelly represents the district that houses what The Washington Post labeled the ‘Sinkhole of Bureaucracy’ in Boyers, Pa. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

There’s a nickname for news reports so provocative that readers are compelled to give them a literal shout out. They’re called “Hey, Martha!” stories — as in, “Hey, Martha! Come read over my shoulder: You’re not going to believe this!”

Just such a doozy dominated The Washington Post’s front page on March 23. It detailed how the government processes federal worker retirement forms: entirely by hand, almost exclusively on paper and always deep inside an old mine in rural western Pennsylvania.

As if that picture of bureaucratic inefficiency were not jaw-dropping enough, the story explained the sobering consequences: The process takes an average of 61 days. More than 23,000 cases are backlogged on a typical day. And, after spending more than $130 million since the late 1980s on three different modernization efforts that failed, there’s almost no chance the system will hook up to the computer era — let alone the Internet age — in the foreseeable future.

What that means is that more than 100,000 outgoing government employees annually — dozens of veteran congressional staffers and Capitol complex laborers among them — can expect to wait more than two months before their retirement is official and they start seeing their full benefits. (Usually, checks representing partial estimated payments show up sooner, but even those became seriously delayed during last fall’s partial government shutdown.)

In the current tight budget climate, and given that combating federal retiree hardships isn’t a politically important cause for many lawmakers, Congress will not be spending what it takes to automate or digitize the process — or to bring it out of the darkness.

But, just as it won’t seek credit for ending the cave age system, it doesn’t deserve credit for starting it, either.

People familiar with the Hill’s old earmarking culture may assume the paperwork mine came into being under the auspices of a couple of powerful lawmakers. The available circumstantial evidence suggests otherwise.

Full story

March 24, 2014

Doctors Win, Jobless Lose: The GOP Confronts New Perception Problem

The week is still young, so there’s time left for the Republicans to change course. But for now, the party is moving assertively toward generating one of the most tin-eared headlines of this campaign year:

Congress bails out doctors again but still spurns the unemployed.

Through a confluence of circumstances, the two measures likely to get the most attention at the Capitol for the next several days would each cost about $10 billion, and both include budgetary offsets making them deficit-neutral.

But only one is likely to ever get cleared: Legislation giving physicians significant, if not-quite-total relief, lasting until after the election, from the 24 percent cut in their Medicare fees that is set to take effect next month. Full story

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