Comparing the House and Senate budgets

Apr 8, 2013

A refreshing bit of budgetary activity took place at the end of last month. Both the Senate and the House passed a budget for 2014! And as Congress gets back to work—the Senate today, the House tomorrow—each branch has the other’s budget to consider. But since both proposals came heavily on partisan lines, the differences show each branch’s opposing politics and interests.

The House budget—H. Con. Res. 25, also called the “Paul Ryan budget” after its sponsor— passed with a vote of 221-207 on March 21. All 221 up votes came from House Republicans while all House Democrats and 10 House Republicans voted against it. The budget has moved on to the Senate.

Conversely, the Senate budget (S. Con. Res. 8) passed the Senate on March 23 with a slim vote of 50-49. Forty-eight of the Senate’s 53 Democrats, and the Senate’s two Independents, voted in favor of the budget. On the losing side were all of the Republican senators and four Democrats. The one missing vote was the remaining Democrat, New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg.

The sponsors of both the House and the Senate budget had an entertainingly similar repertoire of strategies while presenting their budgets.

Both Paul Ryan, R-WI, Budget Committee chairman for the House, and Patty Murray, D-WA, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, claimed their plan would responsibly balance the budget while the opposing plan would not. Both claimed their budget was supported by the American people while the opposing plan would devastate the economy’s fragile recovery. And both suggested—either claimed directly or through political word play—that the other party was to blame for the gridlock of the past.

Both sponsors agreed on one thing, however; that their budgets reflected their priorities.

“Budgets… are about our values and priorities,” said Murray when she presented her budget to the Senate on March 13. “I know the House of Representatives is working on their budget today and I know there are going to be serious differences between the visions and values and priorities within the budgets that will emerge from our chamber and theirs.”

Ryan had much of the same to say when he presented his budget to the House. “Budgets reveal each side’s priorities. They clarify the differences that exist between us.”

But after the party lines are drawn and the politically polite name-calling is tossed about, how different are they really? The differences—and similarities—between the two are interesting.

Agricultural budget

Both the House and the Senate budgets have set lower new “budget authorities”—how much money Congress allows a federal agency to commit to spend—for discretionary agricultural spending than has been seen in prior years. For fiscal year (FY) 2014, the House budget proposes a $21.73 billion new budget authority while the Senate asks for $22.55. This is compared to FY2013’s $24 billion, FY2012’s $24 billion, and FY2011’s $25 billion.

See Chart 1 for a visual comparison of the House and the Senate’s proposed new budget authorities for discretionary agriculture spending in the coming decade.

The decrease seen in both reflect ongoing efforts to reduce government spending and to deal with the

deficit. At least in the case of USDA, which spends the agricultural portion of the budget, there has been an ongoing effort to “streamline” and make the department more efficient. This has included the consolidation of some programs deemed redundant in the past and the reduction of services in the wake of the resent sequestration.

Though it is hard to know how much of this discretionary budget money might go to which agencies and programs, past use of discretionary funds are a good suggestion of the future.

According to USDA’s FY2013’s Budget Summary and Performance Plan, confirmed discretionary “outlays”—how much money actually flows out of the federal treasury in a given year for a federal agency—for 2011 (most recent confirmed) amounted to $27.02 billion.

Of that confirmed amount spent, 27.6 percent ($7.48 billion) was spent on “Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.” This category funds Food and Nutrition Services, the agency which oversees programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamps program, the School Breakfast and Lunch programs, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, among others.

Natural Resources and Environment—a category which includes the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Forest Service, and various 2008 Farm Bill conservation-related initiatives—amounted to $6.85 billion (25.3 percent) of the total discretionary funds. Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services—a category including the Farm Service Agency which oversees things like farm credit, disaster relief and commodityrelated services—was 14.6 percent of 2011’s discretionary outlays.

Categories like Research, Education and Economics (covers Agricultural Research Service [AMS], Economic Research Service, and the National Agricultural Statistics Service), Marketing and Regulation (covers Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, AMS, and the Packers and Stockyards Administration), and Food Safety (oversees Food Safety Inspection Service), received far less of 2011’s discretionary outlays at 9.8 percent, 4 percent, and 3.8 percent, respectively.

The allocation proportions of 2011’s discretionary outlays were fairly consistent with those of the prior two years.

It is important to keep in mind discretionary budgets are in addition to (and generally much lower than) mandatory budgets, and in some cases, the programs on which mandatory and discretionary funds are spent overlap. For instance, while discretionary budget authority for the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services category in 2011 was set at $7.13 billion, the mandatory budget authority was set at $100.39 billion.

Other budget issues

While there are some differences between the House and Senate agricultural budgets, far larger differences can be seen in other areas of the budgets. It is in these differences where the mutually-cited “values and priorities” can be seen.

For FY2014, major differences in the House versus Senate budget authorities exist for Energy; Natural Resources and the Environment; Education, Training, Employment and Social Services; Health; Medicare; and Income Security. See Chart 2 for a comparison of the House and Senate budgets in a number of categories for FY2014 budget authorities.

On the other side of the coin—and contrary to much of the rhetoric on both sides—both branches of Congress seem agreed on budget authorities for FY2014 for National Defense, Veterans’ Benefits and Services, and General Government spending. Both groups differ along ideological lines in how quickly the National Defense and General Government budget will grow, but both see spending for Veterans’ Benefits and Services growing at roughly the same rate.

While both branches of Congress will return to work this week and thereby might see each other’s budgets, the likelihood that they will make a decision soon is unlikely. Also on the horizon for Congress to consider is the president’s budget, which supposedly will come out today, over two months past its Feb. 4 deadline.

Though the White House has not explicitly explained the cause for the delay, an early-March announcement by Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested causes include other economic issues such as the fiscal cliff, sequestration, and the debt ceiling issue. Allusions to “impediments” in Congress were also made. Speaker of the House John Boehner offered some slightly more amusing—if more obviously political rivalrybased—causes for the historic budgetary delay, including the president’s March Madness bracket picks.

Political plays aside, the process of coming up with a budget is a long one. According to the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 (codified in Title 31 of the United States Code), the president must submit a budget on the first Monday of February. The budget committees of each branch of Congress must respond to the presidential budget and use their results to inform their own budgets, which must be presented by April 1.

Following that, budget resolutions must be considered and action must be taken by April 15. Other actions, fixes, reconciliation recommendations, and committee work can be undertaken following this with few required dates set. However, the House and Senate must complete all actions on appropriation bills (which result from the budgets) prior to the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, or else must enact a continuing resolution. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor