What is a Budget Resolution?

Congressional Budget Resolution

LINK: Historical Table of Budget Resolutions and Deeming Resolutions

Following the State of the Union and transmittal of the President’s Budget, Congress begins its own budget process, including adoption of a spending and revenue framework called a “Budget Resolution.”

The Senate and House Budget Committees hold public hearings in February at which they receive testimony on the President’s Budget proposals from Administration officials, outside experts, trade associations and other interest groups, Members of Congress, and the public. At the same time, the other committees of Congress review the President’s Budget proposals and transmit to the Budget Committees their own “views and estimates” on appropriate spending or revenue levels for programs within their respective jurisdictions.

The Senate and House Budget Committees – using the President’s Budget request, information from their own hearings, views and estimates from other committees of Congress, and projections from the Congressional Budget Office – draft their respective versions of a “Congressional Budget Resolution” in a series of working meetings known as committee “mark-ups.”

It is important to understand that the Budget Resolution does not become a law and therefore is not presented to the President for signature. Rather, it is a congressional blueprint to guide subsequent action on specific spending and revenue measures. The Budget Resolution:

  • sets total federal spending and revenue levels;
  • allocates spending to each Committee, including a lump-sum to the Appropriations Committee for all “discretionary” spending;
  • establishes procedures to enforce the budget blueprint; and
  • may include optional special provisions called “budget reconciliation instructions” aimed at expediting changes to mandatory spending programs or tax laws through a filibuster-proof Budget Reconciliation Bill.

Budget Reconciliation Instructions to Reform Mandatory Spending and Taxes

Reconciliation instructions direct specified House and Senate authorizing committees to report, by a certain date, legislative provisions that achieve changes in mandatory spending levels or revenue levels for programs within the authorizing committee’s jurisdiction. While specific mandatory spending or tax changes are “assumed” by the Budget Committee when the dollar targets are drafted, the authorizing committees need not – and often do not – follow the Budget Committee assumptions.

For example, the Budget Resolution could direct the Senate Finance and House Ways & Means Committees to report legislation that makes changes in programs within their jurisdiction that change spending and/or revenue levels by $____ billion over ten years.  The Budget Committees, when drafting the Budget Resolution, base the dollar amounts on specific mandatory spending and tax reforms, but the Finance and Ways & Means Committees can decide to achieve their spending and revenue targets through entirely different reforms – and in some cases, can substitute revenue changes for spending changes, or vice versa, if the total deficit impact is achieved.

Adopting the Budget Resolution

When the House and Senate Budget Committees complete committee action on their respective Budget Resolutions – with or without reconciliation instructions – they report the resolutions to the full House and full Senate, respectively. Members of the House and Senate then have an opportunity to alter the work of their respective Budget Committees by offering amendments to the Budget Resolution during debate on the House and Senate Floors.

Senate debate often includes a long series of votes on non-binding policy statements – commonly called the “vote-a-rama.”  Unfortunately, the dominance of non-binding “sense-of-the-Senate” statements in the vote-a-rama often obscures the importance of amendments that have serious impact – for example, changing the caps on spending, changing the revenue floor, or altering reconciliation instructions.

When the Senate and House have both passed their respective versions of the Budget Resolution, they appoint several of their Members to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences between the House- and Senate-passed resolutions. When differences have been resolved, each chamber must then vote on the compromise version of the Budget Resolution called a “Conference Report.”

Budget Resolutions are not always completed.  Congress failed to complete action on a Budget Resolution in nine fiscal years since the Budget Act was adopted in 1974, including fiscal years 2011 through 2015.

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