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Archive for the ‘Appropriations/Budget’ Category

It’s Budget Day! And You’ll be Disappointed

Monday, February 1st, 2016

budget_processThe first Monday in February is a very special day. It’s the day that the president produces his proposed budget for the following fiscal year, and it marks the beginning of a rich, annual pageant that ends with the mid-summer passage of spending bills for all the federal agencies.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know how little of that is true.

In fact, more often than not, the Obama Administration has been late producing the budget. That kicks off a process that’s not exactly a pageant. And Congress very often fails to budget and set spending priorities before the start of the next fiscal year.

Are we beginning that sloppy process again? Looks like it.

President Obama will not release the budget today. The director of the Office of Management and Budget announced on Twitter in early January that the budget will come out on February 9th.

That’s been fairly common in the Obama years. With the latest tardy budget, it will be six out of eight budgets introduced late.

Budget Year Due Date Date Issued
FY 2010 February 2, 2009 February 26, 2009
FY 2011 February 1, 2010 February 1, 2010
FY 2012 February 7, 2011 February 14, 2011
FY 2013 February 6, 2012 February 13, 2012
FY 2014 February 4, 2013 April 10, 2013
FY 2015 February 3, 2014 March 4, 2014
FY 2016 February 2, 2015 February 2, 2015
FY 2017 February 1, 2016 February 9?

Congress is responsible for its own failings, of course. It could run the spending process on time whether or not the president produced a budget on the due date.

But Congress and the president are both in the same boat politically. They both know that the press and the people don’t follow this stuff very carefully. A late budget travels under the radar. Being late with the spending bills—or not producing some of them at all—doesn’t make much news. And at the end of the process, a big omnibus bill filled with nonsense does things that nobody knows about until it’s too late. That is not a very democratic process, and at that point people get angry.

What should you do about this particular situation? Like always, making noise about what you care about raises your influence. Write a letter to the president and tell your friends about it. Write a letter to your congressman and senators, and tell your friends about it. Write a letter to the editor. Tell your friends about it.

If you’re like most politically aware people, though, you’re focusing on the Democratic and Republican primaries. You’re focusing on the personalities and the controversy. You don’t even feel that hand in your pocket.

But when you and others like you start raising the alarm about sloppy, non-transparent budgeting, things will start to change. So make some noise, and tell your friends about it. Until you do, you’ll continue to be disappointed by budget day.

Congressionally Mandated Bad Budget Information

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

rising baselineIt’s hard enough to gather what’s going on in Congress without Congress standing in your way. But they do. And one way they do that is by warping the budget information that gets shared with the public.

A case in point is “baseline budgeting.” That’s when Congress requires agencies like the Congressional Budget Office to assume that spending on a given program will rise. Changes in spending are then compared to the rising baseline.

Under baseline budgeting, an increase in spending above the baseline looks smaller. And if Congress reduces the rate of growth in a program that’s still growing, it will by reported as a cut.

Here’s an example: H.R. 677 is the American Heroes COLA Act of 2015. The bill would modify several Veterans Administration programs, and it also includes a cost cost-of-living adjustment, or “COLA,” to amounts paid to veterans and their survivors.

A law called the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act requires baseline budgeting in this area, so the Congressional Budget Office officially reports that the bill would produce about $6 billion in new spending, or about $42 per U.S. family. But CBO doesn’t report another $573 in spending per family.

H.R. 677 costs about $615 per U.S. family, not $42. (The bill includes no revenue measures, so its passage would raise the national debt by that same amount.) We don’t think rising baseline budgeting gives you an honest account of spending, so we add back in the money that Congress requires the CBO to leave out (when we know about it).

Now that you have a better idea of what the bill costs, you are a little better positioned to decide what you think of it. Many of our veterans and their families have sacrificed nobly for our country. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have an open tap on your wallet. Should they get another $600 of your family’s money? Something less? More? Or maybe there’s another way to think about how we take care of the nation’s veterans.

Here’s the current vote on H.R. 677, the American Heroes COLA Act of 2015. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

Obamacare is Here to Stay

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

trump obamacare… or at least that’s how it will be while there is a Democratic president.

That’s the lesson of last week’s veto of H.R. 3762, The Restoring Americans’ Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act of 2015. The bill would have repealed key provisions of Obamacare, as well as stripping federal funding from Planned Parenthood.

Republicans have been mighty persistent—Democrats would say maniacal—in their efforts to repeal Obamacare. Almost two years ago, the House had already voted to repeal or alter it some 54 times.

Now, for the first time, the House and Senate have both approved a repeal. That was the recently vetoed reconciliation bill.

That persistence on the part of Obamacare’s opponents can pay off, but it’s 100% clear now that it only happens if only there’s a Republican president.

But a political cross-current may swamp the plans for Obamacare repeal, and that cross-current has a name: Donald Trump.

The Donald is the most popular presidential candidate among Republicans, and he’s the bane of other, more traditional candidates. Many people like his unpolished, tell-it-like-it-is style, even when he’s telling it like it isn’t.

But there’s one thing he almost certainly isn’t, and that’s electable.

That same brash style that makes him popular with some people makes him really unpopular with others. His high negatives mean that if he gets the nod as the Republican candidate, the Democrat wins. And Obamacare stays.

Is Obamacare here to stay? It’s looking good right now.

The Process Really Stinks

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

Paul Ryan process stinksNobody likes the omnibus spending bill that passed Congress last week.

H.R. 2029, The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, spends over $11,000 per U.S. family on the operation of the federal government for the remainder of the 2016 fiscal year.

But the price tag ain’t the half of it.

BoingBoing lambasted the omnibus because of the inclusion of a “domestic mass surveillance law” called the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, saying “that’s just the appetizer in a banquet of corrupt DC horsetrading embodied in 2,000+ pages that indicts the entire US legislative system.”

The Daily Caller blasted the bill because it contains a “serious expansion of the H-2b visa program, a service designed for temporary non-agricultural labor.”

CleanTechnica says, “Americans Deserve Better Than The Omnibus Bill.” The list goes on.

Shortly before his elevation to Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (R-WI) objected to a budget deal put together by outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

This process stinks,” Ryan said, “This is not the way to do the people’s business, and under new management we are not going to do the people’s business this way.”

Or maybe we are.

Recognize how this can happen, though: When Congress does not do its budgeting and spending on time, finishing the appropriations bills in the summer, we get these emergency spending bills adorned like a Christmas tree with legislative tricks and riders.

The first Monday in February is when the president submits his budget for the forthcoming fiscal year. There is a series of steps that Congress is supposed to follow.

Since they won’t do it on their own, the public has to ask them to do it. We’ll see how the public does with overseeing the budgeting process in February!

Five Days, Fifty Billion Dollars

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

money-fallingWhen Congress failed to pass the annual spending bills by the October 1 beginning of the 2016 fiscal year, it passed a continuing resolution funding the government until December 11th. We called it the first continuing resolution, because we expected that there would be more. We were right. That’s not from bein’ a genius, just from payin’ attention.

The latest continuing resolution, passed in haste by the House and Senate last week, funds the government five more days, until December 16th.

By that time, House and Senate leaders and the president are supposed to come up with a funding plan for the remainder of the fiscal year. If they don’t, there’ll be another continuing resolution, and then maybe another one after that.

Congress is supposed to pass spending legislation in the summer, well before the fiscal year begins. Maybe they’ll do that for the 2017 fiscal year. The process starts in early 2016. Your oversight can improve their performance.

Meantime, H.R. 2250, the Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2016, spends about fifty billion dollars on keeping the government open for five days. That’s about the rate of spending during the 2015 fiscal year and about $480 per U.S. family.

Here’s the current vote on H.R. 2250. Click to vote, comment, learn more, and edit the wiki article on the bill.

The National Debt Has Gone Up

Sunday, November 8th, 2015

national-debtIt happens when Congress lifts the debt limit. The national debt rises.

And last week the national debt saw a record one-day increase of over $339 billion.

That’s not because a lot of money flowed out of the government all at once. The Treasury Department has been using resourceful bookkeeping to keep the debt number down. It stopped doing so with the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act, and the jump reflects a move to a more accurate debt number.

The debt is now just over $18.6 trillion. That’s about $180,000 per U.S. family or $58,000 per person, twice the number in the picture at the right. (Last week, the debt was $176,400 per family and $56,400 per person.)

Then there’s the question of what the debt should be. Debt hawks would say “ZERO.” The existence of any national debt at all reflects irresponsibility on the part of Congress and the federal government.

Others argue that debt is normal for any organization, including governments. The question is whether the debts were incurred for things that produce more revenue than the debt costs to maintain. A hundred eighty thousand dollars is not unreasonable debt for an increasingly productive family, and $58,000 is not unreasonable for a productive person.

But has government been spending on things that make the country more productive, like infrastructure and stimulus that primes the economic pump? Or has the government been spending on destructive war and indolence-promoting welfare?

These are deep-running questions that go to our national values. Reasonable people hold views on both sides of this question.

And it doesn’t do much good to argue about it. Rather, people of all views should track what the spending goes to and whether they think it’s a good use of their taxpayer dollars.

WashingtonWatch.com offers some aide in this effort, and we working to improve our capabilities. When bills have a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, we add that into our database and present a “net present value” calculation reflecting the cost or savings per family, person, and so on. (“Net present value” is the amount you’d have to put in the bank today to fund future spending. It’s a way of presenting lots of different spending numbers as a single amount.)

The CBO doesn’t always produce honest numbers. Sometimes Congress requires it to use “baseline budgeting,” which assumes rising spending amounts so that their reports only reflect changes from that. We working on exposing that type of white lie for you.

You should follow along, decide whether spending meets up with your personal values, and act accordingly. That means voting “yes” or “no” on the bills, commenting to say why you voted as you did, and sharing this information with friends, neighbors, and co-workers. (Try not to annoy your co-workers, of course.)

Politics is social. Talk about the facts you learn on WashingtonWatch.com, Tweet about them, and post on Facebook. This will be more persuasive (if less provocative) than your big-government, small-government opinions and who you love and who you hate in the Republican and Democractic presidential debate. Be persuasive with your knowledge of neutrally-stated facts.

The national debt has gone up. It’s your debt as a taxpayer. Your attention to federal spending should go up and stay up, too.

Yes. It Stinks.

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

“This process stinks,” said Paul Ryan (R-WI) ahead of becoming the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, and truer words could not be said. What’s interesting, though, is that passage of H.R. 1314, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, eases the burden on him. He won’t have to organize a chaotic House Republican caucus for a debate on increasing the limit on the national debt that Congress has placed in law. Outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-WI) organized a budget deal that breaks through spending caps known as “sequestration,” increases the debt limit, annnnnd lowers near-term spending.

Yes, for budget hawks, that’s a sort of silver lining in the budget bill passed last week, stinky though it is. According to the Congressional Budget Office estimate for the bill, it saves about $86 per U.S. family by lowering spending more than it raises taxes. It lowers each family’s share of the national debt by more than $500 dollars.

But it’s not all motherhood and apple pie. Increased spending comes right now, and the bulk of the spending cuts come in ten years. The bill increases the national debt in the near term and lowers it later. We’ve seen this before. Congress doesn’t hold itself to spending cuts.

To illustrate, the New York Times published a fascinating, if slightly confusing, graphic this week showing how Congress has repeatedly broken through the “sequestration” spending caps.

But here’s why we think the process stinks: all the stuff that the bill is doing, all at once, without any of the public deliberation that should surround congressional legislation. Here, from a section‐by‐section summary provided to the House Rules Committee, is some of all the stuff in the bill.

  • – Amends the Federal Crop Insurance Act to require that the Standard Reinsurance Agreement be renegotiated no later than December 31, 2016 and at least once every five years thereafter.
  • – Amends the Communications Act of 1934 to authorize the use of automated telephone equipment to call cellular telephones for the purpose of collecting debts owed to the United States government.
  • – Amends the Energy Policy Conservation Act to require the Department of Energy to notify Congress prior to any Strategic Petroleum Reserve test sale, with an exception for emergency drawdowns.
  • – Raises the single‐employer fixed premium payable to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to $68 for 2017, $73 for 2018, and $78 for 2019, and then re-indexes the premium for inflation.

And the list goes on…

We do you no service by reporting week over week what’s wrong, but we’re hoping to be part of the solution when Congress becomes transparent enough, and the problems become acute enough, that a genuine change in the behavior of Congress comes thanks to the demands of the public.

For now, the process just stinks!

Reconcile This!

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

healthThey say turnabout is fair play. Turnabout may be on the way.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, really passed as two different bills. First, there was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act itself (here is the vote), and then there were some more provisions passed in a reconciliation bill called the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 (the vote).

A “reconciliation” bill is a type of bill that has a bit of special sauce. When Congress passes a budget resolution, it may direct one or more committees to submit legislation that will change existing law in order to bring spending, revenues, or the debt ceiling into conformity with the budget plan.

A reconciliation bill automatically gets limited debate in the Senate. That means it doesn’t have to pass a “cloture” vote, requiring a super-majority of 60 senators to approve ending debate on it. In other words, only a bare majority of senators have to approve a reconciliation bill for it to pass.

That’s how the finishing touches on Obamacare got through. And that’s how the bill to undo parts of Obamacare is proceeding now.

Last week, the House passed H.R. 3762, the Restoring Americans’ Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act of 2015. Passage of the bill would cut out key elements of Obamcare, including the individual and employer mandates, the “Cadillac” tax on expensive health plans, and the medical device tax. It would also cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood for one year.

Odd that “reconciliation” would be some of the least conciliatory legislation that the House and Senate could pass.

veto billThose cut-backs in government programs “save” a little over $3,200 per U.S. family and reduce the national debt by just over $1,000 per U.S. family. But, of course, it cuts big chunks out of Obamacare, which might not be good for America. It depends on your opinion of government’s role in health care.

(We say the bill “saves” because it reduces taxes, which are a cost to taxpayers, and it reduces spending, which we also treat as a “cost” to taxpayers. There is a greater reduction in spending than the reduction in revenues, so the result is a lower national debt.)

The bill now goes to the Senate, where it needs just a majority of votes to advance. Will it? That, as always, is up to you.

But really the question is academic because the bill would get a sure veto if it arrived at the president’s desk. It’s been clear for a long time that repeal of Obamacare will not happen while President Obama is in office, or a Democratic successor. It would be astounding if something close to a decade’s work did actually result in a repeal of Obamacare. We’ll be sticking around to see how things come out.

Here’s the current vote on H.R. 3762, the Restoring Americans’ Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act of 2015. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

The First Continuing Resolution

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

delayed trainsThat confusing Congress did its confusing work last week and passed a continuing resolution that funds the government until December 11th.

The law that provides that funding, spending some $11,000 per U.S. family, is Public Law 114-53, the TSA Office of Inspection Accountability Act of 2015.

And that’s what the law is actually called. They didn’t manage to name it the “Continuing Appropriations Act, 2016″ or something. The law that funds the government for the first two months of fiscal 2016 is “TSA Office of Inspection Accountability Act of 2015.”

It’s not quite as bad as the “The ______Act of____,” a law that Congress passed in 2010 without taking enough time to give it a name. But when Congress attached the language that funds the government to the TSA bill, they didn’t rename it to something that indicates the important thing that it does. That’s just how hasty and careless Congress is.

Now, this is the first continuing resolution of fiscal 2016, because Congress is very likely to do another and another, and maybe a couple more, before it finally passes an omnibus spending bill that takes care of the government’s funding for the rest of the year.

Instead of a dozen short-term spending bills, Congress should be passing a dozen regular spending bills in the summer. That’s how this process is supposed to work. But Congress delays those bills so much that it has to do these last-minute bills, which the public gets no chance to review.

We’re working on some changes around WashingtonWatch.com, and we’re hoping that we’ll soon be able to organize people around the project of getting Congress to follow ordinary procedures when it does its annual budgeting and spending. Both parties have been unable to run the trains on time, and it doesn’t push policy one way or another for the process to be open and responsibly run, so it’s a non-partisan project.

Feel free any time, though, to contact your member of Congress, and tell your friends and neighbors to do the same. Right now, we are basically spectators, and we don’t want to be. We want them to introduce and pass spending bills according to the schedule so that we, the public, can follow along.

Here’s the current vote on Public Law 114-53, the TSA Office of Inspection Accountability Act of 2015, which happens to include funding for two-and-a-half months of federal government.

That Confusing Congress and Its Last-Minute Spending

Sunday, September 27th, 2015

John BoehnerYou’d think Congress was purposefully trying to keep you from following along. Well, that’s just a special benefit to Congress and its leaders from its horribly confused and confusing procedures.

This week, you’ll have to chase some “legislative vehicles” to see what Congress is doing.

As followers of this blog know, Congress didn’t pass the annual spending bills on time. Those bills are already a little tough to track, but they’re relatively easy compared to what Congress has cooked up now.

Currently, two different overall spending plans for fiscal 2016 have been proposed, but they’re amendments to other bills rather than freestanding bills themselves. These “legislative vehicles” are H.J. Res. 61, the Hire More Heroes Act of 2015, and H.R. 719, the TSA Office of Inspection Accountability Act of 2015.

The first one, H.J. Res. 61, started life as a bill to amend the tax code to exempt employees with health coverage under TRICARE or the Veterans Administration from being counted for purposes of determining which employers are subject to Obamacare’s employer mandate. It passed the House in late July.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took up the bill and proposed as an amendment a “continuing resolution” that funds the government until December 11th. Doing that under McConnell’s terms would spend $11,074.04 per U.S. family.

The other legislative vehicle is H.R. 719. It started life as a bill to require the Transportation Security Administration to conform to existing laws and regulations regarding criminal investigator positions. All well and good—it passed the House in February. The Senate then passed it with an amendment, and the House passed it with another amendment along the same lines last week.

Well, Senator McConnell took that bill up, and he proposed an amendment to it that is another, slightly different continuing resolution. This one spends $11,075.65 per family.

(These numbers are the total amount of spending, discounted due to the fact that it will occur next fiscal year, then divided by the number of families in the United States. The numbers are not necessarily exact. The cost differences between the two bills show that the latter bill spends just a few million more than the former.)

At this late date, it appears that Congress will almost certainly pass a continuing resolution along the lines of what Senator McConnell has put forward. It will probably keep the government running until December 11th. And it will probably continue to fund Planned Parenthood.

Also, goodbye and good wishes, Speaker Boehner (R-OH). He announced his retirement from the leadership and the House last week.