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April 23, 2014

Posts in "Budget Wars"

April 1, 2014

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

ryan 066 030614 445x296 Ryan Budget Is High Risk, Modest Reward Strategy in an Election Year

(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

Ways Means IRS 26 051713 445x335 Congress Will Allow Government Retirement System to Stay in the Cave Age

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

March 11, 2014

Conventions or Ailing Kids? Bill Trade-Off Not as Simple as It Looks

GOP Convention 478 083012 445x264 Conventions or Ailing Kids? Bill Trade Off Not as Simple as It Looks

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When the options are promising more funding for sick children or preserving the funding for booze and balloons at political conventions, the choice should be about as obvious as it ever gets in Congress.

Which might be why the Senate didn’t even need to call the roll Tuesday morning. Instead, a quick voice vote was all it took to clear legislation (for President Barack Obama’s certain signature) that would end taxpayer subsidies for the presidential nominating conventions — and declare the $126 million saved during the next decade should be spent researching pediatric cancer and other childhood disorders.

The bill was hailed by its Republican authors, and plenty of Democrats, as a compassionately conservative, common-sense application of Robin Hood’s principal. That would be taking from those who appear to be rich (the political parties, businesses and civic leaders who have used the federal money to cover much of the costs of recent gatherings) and giving to those who appear to be needy (the National Institutes of Health’s budget has flat-lined in recent years, complicating its ability to tackle new studies).

But it’s a bit more complicated than that — at both ends of the trade-off. Full story

March 2, 2014

5 Reasons This Supposedly Boring Budget Year Could Be Anything But

Budget 10 041013 409x335 5 Reasons This Supposedly Boring Budget Year Could Be Anything But

The 2013 budget release frenzy. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The budget President Barack Obama sends to Congress on Tuesday will be a month late and hundreds of billions of dollars short.

But no matter, the Capitol’s conventional wisdom holds, that the unenforced legal deadline for his submission was Feb. 3, and that he’ll propose acquiescing in significant deficits for the indefinite future. A truce has been called in the fiscal wars, the thinking goes, and so Obama’s fiscal 2015 document will be little more than the ritualistic starting point for the most desultory budget debate of this decade.

In the big picture, that is the way it looks to play out. But there are several secondary policymaking and political storylines that could make the budget beat interesting in 2014.

The reasons it’s supposed to be a snooze are by now well understood: The rare bipartisan budget deal reached and ratified in December decided the grand total for discretionary spending in the coming year, so there’s minimal reason for an appropriations deadlock. The latest debt limit extension has locked away that particular countdown clock until well after the elections. That means there’s no new fiscal cliff in sight, allowing both Obama and top Republicans to set aside their last, best offers in pursuit of a grand bargain on deficit reduction.

These are five subplots most worth watching. Full story

February 26, 2014

For Camp’s Tax Overhaul Plan, ‘Dead on Arrival’ May Be Beside the Point

camp 179 022614 445x296 For Camps Tax Overhaul Plan, Dead on Arrival May Be Beside the Point

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

What is the point of launching a trial balloon that has already been fatally shot full of holes?

That was the rhetorical question of the day Wednesday, when House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp ceremonially unveiled his plan for the biggest tax overhaul in three decades. The Michigan Republican did so hours after his extensively leaked idea — and the entire topic of an IRS rulebook rewrite — had been marked as a 2014 legislative dead letter by both of his party’s top congressional leaders.

There actually were strategic, selfish and political rationales for Camp to go ahead with his lonely news conference. Full story

February 12, 2014

‘Taking One for the Team’ Isn’t a Concept Boehner Can Rely On

People looking for clues about the current strength and future prospects of John A. Boehner’s speakership should come to one conclusion: He can no longer count on Republicans taking one for the team.

There’s evidence in Tuesday’s debt limit vote to support the view that he pulled off a neat sleight of hand to shield his conference from another self-inflicted wound. But there’s at least as much evidence that Boehner’s control over the outcome was much more tenuous than it could have been — or should have been if his aim is to quell the speculation about his future in the House.

Soon after 28 Republicans joined 193 Democrats to pass legislation lifting the debt ceiling for the next year without any conditions, my colleagues Matt Fuller and Emma Dumain reported this fascinating fact: It was the fewest number of votes from a majority for a bill that passed the House since at least 1991.

That would appear to be the final nail in the strategic coffin for the increasingly sidestepped “Hastert Rule,” which dictates that every bill GOP leadership puts to a vote must muster a majority from the majority.

In the few hours before the roll call, but after Boehner announced his tactical surrender in the four-year debt limit war, he made clear he wasn’t out to run up the score for his position. Instead, he said he would revert to the traditional way of handling the politically problematic need to increase Treasury borrowing: The president’s party would be expected to pull most of the weight. Full story

January 24, 2014

At Retreat, House GOP Will Decide Best Way to Sound Retreat on the Debt

Better-than-even odds say the Great Debt Limit Debate of 2014 will be over before it really gets started, maybe by the end of this week.

House Republicans will decamp from the Capitol on Wednesday, hours after sitting on their hands through most of the State of the Union address, and will reconvene 85 miles away at a sleek golf resort on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. By the time their annual policy retreat ends two afternoons later, their leaders expect to have an answer to one of the most vexing questions they’re confronting this election year: How hard does the rank and file want to resist the next increase in federal borrowing?

The congressional calendar, combined with the vagaries of the government’s balance sheet, argue strongly against procrastinating. And this time, taking a relatively easy way out of the impending jam looks to be the way the House GOP will go. They are likely to signal that retreat at the end of their retreat.

The leaders have a few fig leaf feints in mind — one involves the Keystone XL pipeline, the other congressional pay — and it’s likely they’ll settle on a plan that allows their team at least one burst of bellicosity and a couple of hostage-taking roll calls.

But the post-shutdown Republicans do not really have the stomach for another sustained confrontation that could rattle the markets. Nor do they have the sort of tactical myopia that will lead them for very long down a course that threatens to squander their current midterm election advantage. They know their only viable option is to extend the Treasury’s borrowing authority, with no policy strings that would raise President Barack Obama’s hackles, until after the midterm elections.

And so it’s possible that the required legislation will be cleared even before Valentine’s Day. That would prevent constituent or Wall Street anxieties from welling up during the Presidents Day congressional recess. Voters can also be counted on to have minimal patience for debt limit countdown clocks competing for coverage with the Winter Olympics, another argument against waiting until the last week of the month. Full story

January 14, 2014

Hill Budget’s Fine Print: Less Than Meets the Skeptic’s Eye

snow 007 010314 445x296 Hill Budgets Fine Print: Less Than Meets the Skeptics Eye

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

That 19th-century aphorism “figures don’t lie, but liars will figure” comes to mind when poring over the mind-numbingly comprehensive midyear appropriations package — especially the 44 pages covering the political minefields and minutiae of spending on the legislative branch.

The nation’s legions of Congress-haters are scouring the fine print and concocting their own spreadsheets. They are expecting to uncover evidence that what’s labeled Division I of the omnibus is an exercise in deceitful and hypocritical self-dealing — and are confident they’ll be able to argue persuasively that those voting “yes” this week will be guilty of feathering their own nest at the expense of infinitely more pressing national priorities.

They are being urged on by dozens of Capitol Hill’s own current stewards. These most conservative Republican senators and House members are all too eager to demean the institution in which they work — especially when doing so serves as rationale for opposing a bill with a tough-to-comprehend bottom line cresting $1.1 trillion.

With a couple of narrow exceptions, the naysayers look to be quite disappointed. Full story

January 6, 2014

6 Sleepers Lurking on the Hill’s To-Do List

The first Senate vote of the new year — Monday evening’s confirmation of Janet L. Yellen as the first Federal Reserve chairwoman in its hundred-year history — kicked off the second session of the 113th Congress with a genuinely meaningful bang.

And, as outlined in this space, there’s a solid chance lawmakers will achieve three of the year’s marquee goals before the coldest weeks of winter are over.

A $1 trillion spending package that begins repairing the broken appropriations process seems on course for completion next week. A deal that finds the bipartisan sweet spot for reductions in both food stamps and crop subsidies may follow in a matter of days. And prospects are brightening daily for a relatively drama-free increase in the Treasury’s borrowing authority — lasting until after the election — soon after the Winter Olympics are over.

But then what? Much of the talk at the moment is about revived Republican interest in changing immigration law. But it will be summer, after the bulk of tea party challenges to House GOP incumbents have played out, before leadership decides whether it’s politically safe pull the trigger on an agreement that would easily rank as 2014’s biggest.

After that, there’s a substantial drop in headline appeal. But there are a range of policy areas where Republicans and Democrats might plausibly strike narrow, and narrowly consequential, agreements before the midterm elections. These are half a dozen to watch: Full story

January 5, 2014

3 Reasons Congress’ Year Might Start Unexpectedly Strong

Congress is reopening for business this week, to begin what President Barack Obama says “needs to be a year of action.”

When the president offered that call to arms for 2014, just as the Capitol lights were being dimmed for the holidays, the eye-rolling sentiment from so many lawmakers, aides, lobbyists and journalists amounted to: “Yeah, right. Good luck with that.”

The collective assessment is there’s no way that 2013, the least legislatively productive first year of an administration in six decades, is going to be followed by a more productive spurt from a divided Congress in an election year.

However, the next 10 weeks may hold some genuine prospects for rebutting the conventional wisdom, if only temporarily.

A trio of hallmark accomplishments in the second session of the 113th Congress have strong potential to get done before St. Patrick’s Day. Assuming the Republicans keep to their current course — confining their focus to avoid new, self-inflicted political wounds — lawmakers will be able to extend their current truce in the budget wars not only on the spending front but on borrowing as well. A food and farm bill that gives both sides a claim to victory is well within reach.

And, without traveling too far into optimistic fantasy-land, it’s possible to envision that bipartisan success on that trifecta by March would spawn interest in reaching for some additional deals in the spring. An immigration overhaul may still be the longest of viable long shots, but there’s some hopeful early talk about carefully calibrating compromise on a variety of second-tier issues left hanging at the end of 2013 — from sentencing disparities to water projects, patent lawsuits to online sales taxes, energy efficiency standards to physician reimbursement rates. Full story

December 19, 2013

Now the Hard Part: 3 Weeks to Apportion $1 Trillion

Appropriators from both parties and both sides of the Capitol have opened intentionally secretive negotiations on the mammoth and complex measure necessary to make good on the budgetary truce just called by Congress.

The four-dozen or so members involved have given themselves less than three weeks to agree on the several thousand line items in the bill, which will be written as non-amendable legislation dictating all of the government’s discretionary spending for the final 37 weeks of this budget year.

The enormity of the task and the extraordinarily tight time table would normally present significant obstacles to a smooth or successful outcome. But the lawmakers who have taken the assignment are betting that those challenges will be eased by several factors:

  • The fiscal deal the Senate cleared Thursday, which President Barack Obama will sign before leaving this weekend to spend the holidays in Hawaii, sets a grand total of $1.012 trillion for the package that both parties’ negotiators say they can live with. The figure is $45 billion, or 4.6 percent, more than would have been allowed if the sequester had remained fully on the books.
  • The vast majority of lawmakers, not to mention hundreds of lobbyists and advocates, will be away from Washington during the next two work weeks. That should afford the negotiators and their aides an opportunity to set their priorities and make their tradeoffs without the usual volume of importuning — a tiny silver lining, also, for having to work through Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
  • The leaders of the talks, Kentucky’s Harold Rogers for the Republican majority in the House and Maryland’s Barbara A. Mikulski for the Democratic majority in the Senate, have agreed to draft the bill as a take-it-or-leave it package deal. Their bet here is that substantial numbers from the rank and file in all four caucuses will be willing to set aside their reservations about the content and their annoyance about the process and vote “yes” — because they know defeating the measure would threaten another government shutdown as the first congressional action of the midterm election year.

The timetable for the next three weeks sketched by Rogers and Mikulski, the chairmen of the two Appropriations committees, begins with a deadline they have set for themselves for the end of the week: apportioning the spending grand total into a dozen slices — the so-called 302(b) spending caps for the subcommittees that are supposed to write 12 different spending bills every year.

This is an immensely important first step, because it means choosing winners and losers at a macro level. A relatively generous number for the subcommittees with jurisdiction over labor, health and education programs, for example, would provide some relief from social spending limits that Democrats would embrace. But that money would mean somewhat smaller top lines for subcommittees in charge of the domestic programs Republicans typically favor, which cover such things as water projects, law enforcement and homeland security. Full story

December 11, 2013

Will Paul Ryan’s High-Risk Budget Deal Return High Rewards?

GOP Caucus 18 121113 445x295 Will Paul Ryans High Risk Budget Deal Return High Rewards?

Ryan addresses his budget deal at a GOP leadership press conference Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

This week is a turning point in the career of Paul D. Ryan — one that’s even more consequential than what happened to him 16 months ago.

Being picked to be the Republican nominee for vice president, it turns out, is only guaranteed to be politically transformative if your ticket wins the general election. Engineering a genuinely bipartisan if undeniably modest budget agreement, on the other hand, is sure to change the trajectory of the 43-year-old Wisconsin congressman’s life.

Ryan will find out within a matter of hours whether the deal has propelled his ambitions forward, or accelerated his long-rising star toward oblivion.

By Wednesday evening, a day after the deal was unveiled, a ratification vote by the full House looked more and more likely. It also looked quite possible that most of Ryan’s fellow Republicans would be on board, even though all the major conservative advocacy groups are pressing for its defeat. Those outcomes are the only legislative mysteries; a solid bipartisan majority is lined up in the Senate, and President Barack Obama is eager to affix his signature.

House passage would be profoundly rewarding for Ryan for several reasons, especially if his plan secures a majority of the majority. Full story

December 2, 2013

Mixed Economic News Faces Budget Talkers as Congress Returns

Updated: 6:00 p.m. | Some decidedly mixed economic signals are greeting lawmakers as they begin their balky return for the final month in this historically lackluster year of legislating.

Gloomy numbers for the opening four days of holiday shopping season were followed Monday by heartening reports about the pace of construction and manufacturing this fall. The biggest economic news before the end of the year, though, will be the monthly jobs report that’s issued Friday.

On the Hill, the overriding question is whether those indicators will spur or slow the budget talks. They have gained outsized attention because so little else is going on — even though the negotiators have made clear they’ve decided to reach for an extremely modest goal, hoping that hitting even a relatively easy target will send Congress home for the holidays to a sigh of voter relief.

The House returned from Thanksgiving on Monday, with top Republicans sounding pretty emphatic about the last votes of the year coming by the end of next week. That target adjournment seems overly optimistic to many, but it’s another indication of just how little is on the GOP leadership’s must-do list before the end of 2013. This, after all, is the first year in several without any hard and fast deadline galvanizing national attention. (The closest thing is the return of the “dairy cliff,” an expected steep rise in retail milk prices in early January unless some provisions of the stuck-in-conference farm bill are extended.)

Senators were given this week off in anticipation that they may be needed in the third week of the month, which means all the lights at the Capitol may not be dimmed until the weekend before Christmas.

But Friday the 13th is the nominal deadline — set, without any consequences for tardiness, in the deal that ended October’s partial government shutdown — for budget conferees to come up with some kind of middle ground fiscal blueprint. Full story

By David Hawkings Posted at 12:11 p.m.
Budget Wars

November 20, 2013

Don’t Bet on a Tax Code Rewrite Happening Anytime Soon

luncheon014 100113 445x296 Dont Bet on a Tax Code Rewrite Happening Anytime Soon

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In the current congressional climate, it’s wiser to assume something won’t happen than it is to assume it will — even when it’s the chairman of an important committee proposing a sweeping policy rewrite.

That advice should prove good for assessing the meaning of this week’s biggest legislative policy revelations: the plans for revamping the federal tax code that Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus has been gestating for years, which he has started parceling out in modest daily installments.

One of the top Democratic tax-writers on the Hill for more than a decade, the Montana Democrat has been defying initial expectations and working as hard as he’s able to marshal whatever political capital he has behind an overhaul. He still dreams of defying all the odds and realizing his biggest legislative achievement in the next year before his four decades representing Montana in Washington come to an end.

“Once we get the ball rolling, many are going to say, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something to this. Maybe there’s an opportunity there to help the country create jobs and therefore an opportunity for political benefit,’” he told reporters in beginning his big reveal Tuesday.

It’s tough to find viable reasons for believing he’ll achieve this admittedly steep uphill climb, but there are several solid reasons to be confident it won’t.

Full story

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