Congress and the Executive Branch and Health Policy – KFF

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Under Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress is granted the exclusive power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, and to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and General Welfare of the United States.”   

In 1974, lawmakers passed the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act in an effort to standardize the annual process for deciding tax and spending policy for each federal fiscal year and to prevent the executive branch from making spending policy reserved to Congress. Among other things, it created the House and Senate Budget Committees and set timetables for each step of the budget process.   

Perhaps most significantly, the 1974 Budget Act also created the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). This non-partisan agency has come to play a pivotal role in not just the budget process, but in the lawmaking process in general. The CBO issues economic forecasts, policy options, and other analytical reports, but it most significantly produces estimates of how much individual legislation would cost or save the federal government. Those estimates can and do often determine if legislation passes or fails.  

The annual budget process is supposed to begin the first Monday in February, when the President is to present his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins the following Oct. 1. This is one of the few deadlines in the Budget Act that is usually met.  

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After that, the action moves to Congress. The House and Senate Budget Committees each write their own “Budget Resolution,” a spending blueprint for the year that includes annual totals for mandatory and discretionary spending. Because mandatory spending (roughly two-thirds of the budget) is automatic unless changed by Congress, the budget resolution may also include “reconciliation instructions” to the committees that oversee those programs (also known as “authorizing” committees) to make changes to bring the cost of the mandatory programs in line with the terms of the budget resolution. The discretionary total will eventually be divided by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees between the 12 subcommittees, each responsible for a single annual spending (appropriations) bill. Most of those bills cover multiple agencies – the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, also includes funding for the Departments of Labor and Education.   

After the budget resolution is approved by each chamber’s Budget Committee, it goes to the House and Senate floor, respectively, for debate. Assuming the resolutions are approved, a “conference committee” comprised of members from each chamber is tasked with working out the differences between the respective versions. A final compromise budget resolution is supposed to be approved by both chambers by April 15 of each year. (This rarely happens.) Because the final product is a resolution rather than a bill, the budget does not go to the President to sign or veto.   

The annual appropriations process kicks off May 15, when the House may start considering the 12 annual spending bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. By tradition, spending bills originate in the House, although sometimes, if the House is delayed in acting, the Senate will take up its own version of an appropriation first. The House is supposed to complete action on all 12 spending bills by June 30, in order to provide enough time to let the Senate act, and for a conference committee to negotiate a final version that each chamber can approve by October 1.  

That October 1 deadline is the only one with consequences if it is not met. Unless an appropriations bill for each federal agency is passed by Congress and signed by the President by the start of the fiscal year, that agency must shut down all “non-essential” activities funded by discretionary spending until funding is approved. Because Congress rarely passes all 12 of the appropriations bills by the start of the fiscal year (the last time was in 1996, for fiscal year 1997), it can buy extra time by passing a “continuing resolution” (CR) that keeps money flowing, usually at the previous fiscal year’s level. CRs can last as little as a day and as much as the full fiscal year and may cover all of the federal government (if none of the regular appropriations are done) or just the departments for the unfinished bills. Congress may, and frequently does, pass multiple CRs while it works to complete the appropriations process.  

While each appropriations bill is supposed to be considered individually, to save time (and sometimes to win needed votes), a few, several, or all the bills may be packaged into a single “omnibus” measure. Bills that package only a handful of appropriations bills are cheekily known as “minibuses.”   

Meanwhile, if the budget resolution includes reconciliation instructions, that process proceeds on a separate track. The committees in charge of the programs requiring alterations each vote on and report their proposals to the respective budget committees, which assemble all of the changes into a single bill. At this point, the budget committees’ role is purely ministerial; it may not change any of the provisions approved by the authorizing committees.   

Reconciliation legislation is frequently the vehicle for significant health policy changes, partly because Medicare and Medicaid are mandatory programs. Reconciliation bills are subject to special rules, notably on the Senate floor, which include debate time limitations (no filibusters) and restrictions on amendments. Reconciliation bills also may not contain provisions that do not pertain directly to taxing or spending.  

Unlike the appropriations bills, nothing happens if Congress does not meet the Budget Act’s deadline to finish the reconciliation process, June 15. In fact, in more than a few cases, Congress has not completed work on reconciliation bills until the calendar year AFTER they were begun.    

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