Fiscal Policy • FY17 Budget Vote (Jan. 13)

The House passed a budget resolution for the remainder of FY17 this afternoon on a near party-line vote, 227-198.  Adoption of the resolution follows Senate passage of the measure yesterday 51-48 with only Sen. Rand Paul crossing party lines — it projects a $9.1 trillion debt increase FY17-FY26 — and reaffirms the GOP’s intent to repeal Obamacare without addressing replacement plans, transition, or even timetables.  But this is only a resolution, without force of law.  The time for boldness comes later.

Republicans seem more reluctant to gut Obamacare now that the incoming President is from their party and message votes might actually create law.  The party’s uncertainty over when and how to try to replace it is tempered by the risk it will unleash chaos on the $3 trillion healthcare system and strip 20 million Americans of health insurance.

More on the politics and process behind the first congressional resolution of the new year.

Happy MLK Day long weekends to all.




While the budget resolution itself is not a law, it bears on the legislative fiscal agenda for the year.  It requires legislators to change, amend, or repeal existing laws so that government expenditure and revenues match the numbers outlined in the budget resolution.

The reason this budget resolution matters is that it is done through using the process of budget reconciliation.  The procedural details descend into arcana but final passage is front page material.

What is Reconciliation?

Reconciliation is the process which congress uses to push forward on controversial and partisan legislation without the risk of filibuster by the opposition. The reason for this is that reconciliation measures allot a time limit for debate, usually no longer than 20 hours. 

Reconciliation can be used to make changes to federal spending levels, revenues, or the public debt limit, and can be utilized to alter mandatory spending for programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

To implement the reconciliation process, both chambers of Congress must pass a budget resolution with “reconciliation instructions” for the relevant congressional committees of jurisdiction and draft legislation to achieve the goals of the budget resolution. These instructions are sent to Congressional committees with jurisdiction over the laws targeted by the budget resolution. There will be reconciliation instructions targeted at energy, commerce, health, education, labor and finance committees. .

Byrd Rule and Vote-a-rama

Under the Byrd Rule, Senators can object to the bill on the grounds that it is “extraneous” to the purpose of changing the budget. This means that these instructions will mainly target healthcare and not efforts to repeal Dodd-Frank, for example. But with instructions sent to labor, finance, and commerce, these instructions might target infrastructure spending.

As Congress advances reconciliation legislation to repeal portions of the ACA, Senate Republicans will face limitations on what measures they will be able to include in the bill under the Byrd Rule, which was incorporated into the Congressional Budget Act in 1990. The Byrd Rule allows any Senator to raise a point of order against the bill or any amendment to it on the grounds that it is “extraneous” to the bill’s purpose of making budgetary changes.

Section 313(b)(1) of the Congressional Budget Act defines “extraneous” matters as those that:

  • Do not produce a change in outlays or revenues;
  • Produce changes in outlays or revenue which are merely incidental
  • Are outside the jurisdiction of the committee that submitted the title
  • Increase outlays or decrease revenue if the provision’s title, as a whole, fails to achieve the Senate reporting committee’s reconciliation instructions;
  • Increase net outlays or decrease revenue during a fiscal year after the years covered by the reconciliation bill unless the provision’s title, as a whole, remains budget neutral

Democratic Amendments

After agreeing to budget resolution votes, Democrats pushed for a series of votes, known as a “vote-a-rama.”   Holding so many votes in a short period of time — usually five minutes of debate is allowed under the procedure– it is symbolic and serves the political purpose of having your opponents voting against laws that are favored by the majority of Americans. In this case, the Democrats’ response to the budget proposal was putting the GOP on the spot to vote against the protection of Medicare and Medicaid for example.

The majority of amendments filed as of Tuesday are from Democrats, and many seek to use a “point of order” to stop the Senate from considering bills that would make changes to the ACA or to entitlement programs like Medicare.

•  Sen. Stabenow filed amendments to block bills aimed at reducing or eliminating access to mental health care, and any cuts to Medicare that the Congressional Budget Office says would increase out-of-pocket costs for seniors. Another would require the CBO to score any legislation that changes the ACA

•  Sen. Gillibrand filed an amendment to prohibit consideration of legislation that “makes women sick again” by decreasing access to or coverage of reproductive health care services, or allows insurance companies to discriminate against women

•  Sen. Klobuchar’s amendment would allow Medicare to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs — endorsed by President-elect Trump this week but not generally supported by the GOP

•  Sen. Coons proposed preventing the Senate from considering legislation repealing provisions of the ACA that closed the “doughnut hole” in the Medicare prescription drug program

 The Bottom Line

The day of reckoning will come for the GOP.  Fully replacing the law won’t be easy. Even if Republicans are able to agree on a plan, they will not be able to use the reconciliation process, which can address only taxing and spending policy, to completely remake the health system. That would require Democratic votes in the Senate to overcome the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold, and finding support among the minority will be difficult.

House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer is from Maryland but expressed the futility of this week’s budget action with a Missouri accent: “Show us the beef, show us the alternative.”

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