Ahead of schedule! That phrase does not normally apply to Congress. But one salutary side effect of the budget deal of last December between Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray and House Budget Chair Paul Ryan is that it automatically establishes the next congressional budget plan.
Ordinarily, Congress is supposed to agree on a budget plan — a congressional “budget resolution” — by April 15 each year. Yet with increasing frequency, the House and Senate go their separate ways, disagree with each other, argue about budget targets all year long, and trip over their own budget enforcement rules.
The good news is that the Murray-Ryan budget deal includes provisions that create an automatic budget plan, applicable in both the House and Senate and legally constituting a budget resolution, effective this April 15. The plan:
sets 2015 funding levels for the Appropriation Committees;
sets appropriations levels for later years at levels specified by the 2011 Budget Control Act (enforceable caps on defense and non-defense discretionary funding, as reduced by sequestration); and
sets levels for revenues and mandatory spending, consistent with the statutory baseline that the Congressional Budget Office will issue this spring.
This plan allows the Appropriations Committees to begin work on the fiscal year 2015 bills this spring, increasing the likelihood that agency budgets will be in place closer to the start of the fiscal year, and avoiding the brinksmanship and uncertainty that has characterized the appropriations process recently. And by setting mandatory spending and revenues at baseline levels, the Murray-Ryan deal is consistent with, and reinforces, the 2010 Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act (PAYGO) and the House’s 2011 “cut-as-you-go” rule. This also means that any continuation of expiring provisions — like the so-called “doc fix” (to prevent deep cuts in Medicare reimbursements for doctors) or the “tax extenders” — must be fully offset; as we have explained, that is good news for future deficits.
Of course, there is nothing to stop one or both houses of Congress from attempting to design and approve a different plan. Maybe a different plan would, like the Murray-Ryan deal, call for undoing some of the 2016-2021 sequestration, offset by cuts in mandatory programs or increases in revenues. Or maybe it would aim for immediate job creation or further deficit reduction. If the past is prologue, however, Congress will be unable to agree on a single, alternative plan.
But make no mistake — if Congress does not agree on an alternative plan, that does not mean it has failed; it means the plan in the Murray-Ryan deal will stick. In short, unlike past years, inaction is not a failure, because successful budget planning is already in place.