A major budget issue for fiscal year 2016 is whether policymakers will replace the “sequestration” budget cuts that are tightly constraining non-entitlement programs. Rather than provide a clear plan to do so, however, the budget resolutions that will come to the House and Senate floors this week offer only aspirational language along with a gimmick for defense.
Both resolutions offer the prospect of so-called reserve funds for this or that program initiative. These funds provide no plan and set aside no dollars. Rather, they say that if policymakers strike a deal on some issue such as sequestration relief, they can adjust the totals in the budget resolution to accommodate it. In the House resolution, however, the reserve fund is available only for easing sequestration in defense — not non-defense — and prohibits using revenue increases to offset any costs.
In addition, both resolutions provide additional amounts for defense, but only with a gimmick that circumvents — rather than increases — the cap on regular defense appropriations for 2016. The resolutions do this by including extra funds — $36 billion in the House, $38 billion in the Senate — above the Administration’s request for “overseas contingency operations” (OCO). These funds are not subject to the annual appropriations limits under the Budget Control Act (BCA) and are designated to cover the costs of military operations in the Middle East and other war zones. Using OCO funds to meet general military needs is just a way to circumvent the BCA cap. Last year, the House Budget Committee derided such a maneuver as a “backdoor loophole that undermines the integrity of the budget process.”
A better approach is what then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray proposed for 2014 that expressly included higher appropriations levels for defense and non-defense programs along with offsetting program savings and revenues. Her budget reflected both the intent and a plan to replace sequestration, thereby setting the stage for the agreement she negotiated later in 2013 with then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to amend the BCA and provide two years of relief from sequestration.
This year, Senator Murray offered an amendment to the Senate budget resolution while the Budget Committee was considering it, proposing once again to incorporate a plan for sequestration relief. The Republican-controlled committee defeated it on a party-line vote.
Rather than duck the issue or rely on gimmicks, the budget committees should have addressed the issue straightforwardly in their resolutions by including a plan to replace sequestration in both defense and non-defense appropriations.