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Archive for the ‘Appropriations/Budget’ Category

Read the (Appropriations) Bill!

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

Like crocuses poking through the snow signaling the coming of spring, the first appropriations bills for fiscal year 2015 have been introduced.

H.R. 4486 is the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2015. It would spend about $1,500 per U.S. family.

And H.R. 4487 is the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, 2015. It’s modest cost: about $34 per family.

If you’re a budding government overseer (budding like a crocus poking through the snow), the legislative branch bill offers you a little opportunity to practice your trade. You see, it’s a relatively short bill. (Short relative to other spending bills, that is.) You can read through it and have some idea of where the money goes.

Go to the page for H.R. 4487, and in the “Learn More” box, click on “Read the bill.” You can scroll through whichever bill version you like.

See how much money goes to House leadership offices, members’ representational allowances (what they spend representing you in Congress), committee employees, standing committees, and so on.

Keep reading! There’s the money for the Capitol Police, Congressional Budget Office, the Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Visitor Center. The Library of Congress runs the Copyright Office and the Congressional Research Service. There they are.

There’s more. The bill would create a “Center for Audit Excellence” in the Government Accountability Office. Think it’s a good idea? A boondoggle?

How about sending $3,420,000 to the Open World Leadership Center Trust Fund for financing activities of the Open World Leadership Center? Good idea or bad?

You can also read the committee’s report on the bill. In the “Learn More” box, click on “Read an Analysis of the Bill.”

It has a nice summary of the bill in comparison to FY 2014 spending and the president’s FY 2015 spending request. It looks like this:

The new bill spends more in some places and less in others. What do you think of the differences?

If you care enough to weigh in with your representatives and senators, you can pick an item and tell them what you think about it. Then follow along to see whether they do anything consistent with your wishes. That’s not easy, but it’s kind of your job as an American citizen, so give it a try. We’ll keep trying to make this information easier to access. You can access it right now by reading the appropriations bill!

Senate Passes Data Act

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

A major effort to improve government transparency took a step forward this past week with Senate passage of S. 994, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2013. The House is likely to pass the bill when Congress returns at the end of April, and President Obama should sign the bill into law.

The DATA Act will require the federal government to standardize and publish all executive branch spending information. This will enable sites like ours—and many other resources—to produce better reports on how the government spends taxpayer money. Take a look at the handy video from the Data Transparency Coalition to learn more.

Online publication of federal spending information would include virtually all forms of government spending. Information would be made available in forms that are both easily searchable and downloadable. The bill requires agencies to provide data in a uniform manner. And agency compliance with the law’s mandates would be audited.

The DATA Act should facilitate increased public oversight of the federal government, flushing out waste, fraud, and abuse, and improving the effectiveness and efficiency of federal spending programs. We plan to use the data once it’s available to provide you better information about goings-on in government.

We wrote about our support for the DATA Act in the last Congress and encouraged you to help push for it in the Senate.

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced S. 994, joined by Senator Rob Portman (R-OH). The House version, H.R. 2061, is also a bipartisan bill, introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD).

Don’t expect instant results. The federal government is a big organization and it will take a couple of years of hard work to turn around its processes and make them more transparent. But the course set by the DATA Act is a good one.

Here’s the current vote on the DATA Act. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

The Ryan Budget, Sliced and Diced

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Last week, the House Budget Committee chaired by former vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) produced a proposed fiscal year 2015 budget. It goes to the House floor this coming week.

Over years, the administration, House, and Senate have developed customs around budgeting that make their work quite difficult for ordinary people to understand. But at least we can get a look at the numbers.

Below are two different perspectives on the budget. The first chart below is the classic layout of anticipated budget numbers from fiscal year 2015 to 2024. Revenue is money coming in, of course. Budget authority is legal authority to spend, while outlays refers to actual dollars being expended. On-budget deficits are only part of the deficit picture. And there are two ways of calculating debt that mean different things to budgeteers.

Take a look at the numbers and where they head over time.

H. Con. Res. 96 – Recommended Levels and Amounts
Year Revenues Budget Authority Outlays Deficits (on-budget) Debt Subject to Limit Debt Held by the Public
2015 $2,533,841,000,000. $2,842,226,000,000. $2,920,026,000,000. -$386,186,000,000. $18,304,357,000,000. $13,213,000,000,000.
2016 $2,676,038,000,000. $2,858,059,000,000. $2,889,484,000,000. -$213,446,000,000. $18,627,533,000,000. $13,419,000,000,000.
2017 $2,789,423,000,000. $2,957,321,000,000. $2,949,261,000,000. -$159,838,000,000. $19,172,590,000,000. $13,800,000,000,000.
2018 $2,890,308,000,000. $3,059,410,000,000. $3,034,773,000,000. -$144,466,000,000. $19,411,553,000,000. $13,860,000,000,000.
2019 $3,014,685,000,000. $3,210,987,000,000. $3,185,472,000,000. -$170,787,000,000. $19,773,917,000,000. $14,080,000,000,000.
2020 $3,148,637,000,000. $3,360,435,000,000. $3,320,927,000,000. -$172,290,000,000. $20,227,349,000,000. $14,427,000,000,000.
2021 $3,294,650,000,000. $3,460,524,000,000. $3,433,392,000,000. -$138,741,000,000. $20,449,374,000,000. $14,579,000,000,000.
2022 $3,456,346,000,000. $3,587,380,000,000. $3,577,963,000,000. -$121,617,000,000. $20,822,448,000,000. $14,940,000,000,000.
2023 $3,626,518,000,000. $3,660,151,000,000. $3,632,642,000,000. -$6,124,000,000. $20,981,807,000,000. $15,080,000,000,000.
2024 $3,807,452,000,000. $3,706,695,000,000. $3,676,374,000,000. $131,078,000,000. $21,089,365,000,000. $15,176,000,000,000.

Another perspective on the budget is available by looking at the “functional categories” of spending. (more…)

It’s the Obscure Bills that Make the Difference

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

A couple of bills received cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office last week. (Well, actually, their cost estimates from last year were finally posted.) The estimates don’t matter much—their costs are negligible—but the fact of getting a CBO score means that they’re serious bills, which may move through Congress in the near future. So let’s take a look at H.R. 1871, the Baseline Reform Act of 2013, and H.R. 1874, the Pro-Growth Budgeting Act of 2013. These obscure bills may make a lot of difference.

The Baseline Reform Act would change how “baseline budgeting” is conducted.

In service to Congress and the executive branch, CBO and the Office of Management and Budget prepare projections of federal spending and revenues. When they review the bills in Congress, current law requires them to assume that spending will increase with inflation. This is called a “rising baseline” because the path of spending in many programs is assumed to rise. The CBO and OMB reports reflect how spending will differ from the baseline, not how they will differ from actual spending in the past.

The “rising baseline” has some unusual effects. It makes increases in spending appear smaller because they are nearer to the rising baseline than current spending. It makes reductions in growth appear as though they are cuts. And it makes actual cuts appear quite a bit larger when these agencies publish their reports. We use them, Congress uses them, and lots of media use these reports in public debates. According to the House Budget Committee, the rising baseline assumes approximately $1.2 trillion more spending over ten years.

H.R. 1871 removes the inflationary assumption from these reports, requiring that the baseline assume neither an increase nor a decrease for discretionary spending programs. CBO and OMB spending would be estimated by comparing it to spending in previous years rather than that rising baseline.

H.R. 1874, the Pro-Growth Budgeting Act of 2013, tinkers with CBO reporting another way. The bill requires CBO to produce a “supplemental macroeconomic analysis” for major legislation. The analysis would describe the likely impact of major bills on key economic variables such as business investment, the capital stock, employment, labor supply, and real Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The analysis would look at both the short-term and long-term economic impacts of bills—going out four decades—and it would include estimates of revenue increases or decreases resulting from changes in real GDP.

Sometimes, for example, a tax cut may spur economic growth that ultimately increases tax revenues. Or a tax increase may retard economic growth, causing revenues to fall. The new analyses would include this information.

The House Budget Committee says that CBO would use “a wide variety of economic models as well as the broad spectrum of empirical economic research and academic scholarship” to produce its reports “in order to reflect the full range of possible economic outcomes resulting from a bill.”

The bill is not non-controversial. Democrats led by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (MD) wrote in the bill’s committee report that this dynamic scoring methodology is “favored by Republicans because its subjective nature lends itself to the make-believe theory that tax breaks for the wealthy pay for themselves due to trickle-down economics.” The bill excludes “spending on investments” because bills reported by the Appropriations Committee “contain investments that foster economic growth.”

The small, obscure changes to government policy in these bills could have large effects on debates about spending for years to come. As often as not, it’s the obscure bills that make the difference.

And, as always, the right answer is what you think. Below are the current votes on H.R. 1871 and H.R. 1874. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki articles about the bills.

Lowering the Debt the National Debt Through Immigration

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

The SKILLS Visa Act (H.R. 2131) seems hugely expensive—over $2,300 per U.S. family! But there’s more to the story. The bill would reduce the national debt by about $2,200 per U.S. family. Paying down debt is good by most people’s reckoning.

So what’s going on here?

The cost estimates here on WashingtonWatch.com treat revenue as a “cost.” Revenues take money from taxpayers, after all. So to taxpayers that’s a cost. Spending is also a cost, because it expends money that we “all” own.

The majority of “costs” in this immigration reform bill are revenues collected from new immigrants—their payroll and income taxes. Not much of the costs are from spending. So what the bill does is lower the national debt with the economic contribution of new workers.

The majority of our cost estimates come from studies that can be read at the link that says “Read an analysis of this bill” in the “Learn More” box. It’s a good idea to take a look if you want to know more about the costs or savings from a bill.

Interesting notion: Immigration reform can lower the national debt.

Here’s the current vote on H.R. 2131, the SKILLS Visa Act. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

That’s an interesting.

Debt Limit Suspended Until Next Year, But Not Without a Fight

Monday, February 17th, 2014

The debt limit. Some regard it as an outdated concept. Others think it’s a last chance to control the federal government’s bloated spending.

The debt limit or “debt ceiling” means the federal government can’t go into debt any further than Congress allows. And Congress has allowed more and more debt over years, as the chart on the right shows.

Last week, Congress suspended the debt limit until the spring of 2015. The new debt limit will be set on March 16th, 2015, at the amount of debt the government has run up by that time.

This idea was pretty well agreed upon by the leadership of the House and Senate, which did not want a fight. But it wasn’t agreed to by everyone. And Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) used Senate rules to expose some of his colleagues for allowing what he sees as a get-along go-along deal.

If nobody objects, a bill like S. 540, the Temporary Debt Limit Extension Act, can sail through the Senate without a vote at all. But if someone objects, they can require votes, including a thing called a “cloture” vote, which requires three-fifths of senators, or 60 votes, to approve. It’s a vote on ending debate and proceeding with a bill, so it says, “Yeah, I’d be alright with this bill passing.”

The 60-vote requirement means that some Republicans would have to vote for cloture. They would have to be alright with suspending the debt limit and, in the view of some, letting the government’s spending continue.

Senator Cruz doesn’t think Republicans should be letting that happen, so he used these Senate rules to put his colleagues on the record with a vote.

The results of the cloture vote are here. Just getting to 60 votes would have caused one or two senators to be exposed as providing the crucial vote that allowed the debt limit to be suspended, so the vote was held open while big numbers of Republicans were persuaded to vote this way.

And the Republican senators who backed the cloture on S. 540 were:

John Barrasso (WY)
Susan Collins (ME)
Bob Corker (TN)
John Cornyn (TX)
Jeff Flake (AZ)
Orrin Hatch (UT)
Mike Johanns (NE)
Mark Kirk (IL)
John McCain (AZ)
Mitch McConnell (KY)
Lisa Murkowski (AK)
John Thune (SD)

None of them voted in favor of the bill on the final vote. They just helped it clear the last big hurdle before the final vote.

So will they suffer the repercussions Senator Cruz thinks should meet a Republican who compromises on spending? That depends on the voters in their states. That depends on you.

(In the past, Republicans have sought to win spending constraints from debates about the debt ceiling. For a time, though, this bill was going to have some spending increases in it—reversing a reduction in the cost‐of‐living adjustment for military retirees. Because that plan to spend about $60 per family was also going to extend sequester-like spending controls to 2024, it was going to total about $10 in spending per U.S. family. In the end, it was a “clean” bill—no new spending or spending cuts.)

Alright, enough of the politics. It’s time to take your medicine. Here’s some recent history of the debt ceiling:

The federal government reached the debt limit on May 16, 2011, prompting then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to declare a “debt issuance suspension period,” allowing certain extraordinary measures to extend Treasury’s borrowing capacity.

On August 2, 2011, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 (Public Law 112-25), which tried to reduce spending while allowing the debt limit to rise between $2,100 billion and $2,400 billion in three stages.

Once the Budget Control Act was enacted, presidential certifications triggered a $400 billion increase, raising the debt limit to $14,694 billion, and then a second $500 billion increase on September 22, 2011. A disapproval measure for this increase (H.J. Res. 77) only passed the House. A January 12, 2012, presidential certification triggered a third, $1.2 trillion increase in the debt, while the House passed another disapproval measure (H.J. Res. 98).

The federal debt again reached its limit on December 31, 2012, and extraordinary measures were then used to allow payment of government obligations until February 4, 2013, when Public Law 113-3, the “No Budget, No Pay Act of 2013,” suspended the debt limit until May 19, 2013. As of May 19, the debt limit was set at $16,699 billion and extraordinary measures were again employed.

On September 25, 2013, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew notified Congress that the government would exhaust its borrowing capacity around October 17. The U.S. Treasury would then have a cash balance of only $30 billion. In Public Law 113-46, the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014, Congress suspended the debt limit again, until February 7, 2014. Those “extraordinary measures” kept things going until the votes in the House and Senate this past week on S. 540, the Temporary Debt Limit Extension Act.

So that’s the story on the debt ceiling. You’re going to win “Mr./Ms. Conversational” with that info at your next cocktail party!

Here’s the current vote on it among WashingtonWatch.com users. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article about the bill.

Spending Deal Do-Overs!

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

When you were a kid, of course, you asked for do-overs. Things go wrong sometimes! Take it back! Maybe now that you’re a grown-up and a golfer, you call it a mulligan.

That’s what the Senate will deal with this coming week. A do-over!

The bill is S. 1963, and it would repeal section 403 of Public Law 112-76, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. The text of the bill is blessedly brief. It’s one you can read!

Section 403 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 (Public Law 113-67) is repealed as of the date of the enactment of such Act.

Section 403 cut military pensions to the tune of $6 billion, and S. 1963 is meant to restore that spending. (We don’t have an official cost estimate, but $6 billion is about $59 per U.S. family.)

The bill is sponsored by Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR), and only fellow Democrats have co-sponsored it, which is a surprise because many Republicans are big fans of military spending and spending that honors the sacrifices of military veterans.

Pryor voted “yes” on the Bipartisan Budget Act even though it had the provision he’s now trying to cut out. This is either because the bill was too important to oppose based on the cut to military pensions, or because he didn’t know the military pension cuts were in there.

Joining Pryor on “team do-over”—all of these cosponsors voted for the bill they are now trying to change—are Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Mark Begich (D-AK), Kay Hagan (D-NC), and Brian Schatz (D-HI).

So, should “team do-over” get to take back the spending cuts in that bill they recently passed? That, as always, is up to you.

Here’s the current vote on S. 1963, a bill to repeal section 403 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

It’s a Spending Week

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Nobody seems to want to fight about it, so you won’t hear much in the news, but this is a spending week in Washington, D.C.

Back when the 2014 fiscal year began in October, Congress hadn’t passed its regular spending bills, so it had to produce a continuing resolution. Public Law 113-46, the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014, spent the money (about $11,000 per family) to run the government until January 15, 2014. That’s this coming Wednesday.

They still haven’t come with a plan for funding the government yet, so here’s what’s going to happen this week:

By Wednesday, Congress will probably pass H. J. Res. 106. That bill extends funding of the government for three days, until January 18th.

Meantime, House and Senate negotiators will try to figure out a longer-term spending plan. That bill, assuming it materializes, will have to be passed by Saturday.

What kind of spending is involved?

Well, three days of running the federal government costs about $10 billion dollars. That’s actually just the spending that isn’t automatic—they call it “discretionary” spending. If you include “mandatory” spending—that’s the spending that Congress has made automatic—three days of the federal government is about $31 billion.

Anyway, the three days of discretionary spending in H. J. Res. 106 is about $96 per U.S. family.

If Congress passes a spending bill that goes for the rest of the year, that’s about $867 billion in discretionary spending, or $8,000 per family. The full cost of the government for the remaining 255 days of the year is $2.6 trillion.

Want to understand more about all this? Check out “A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget” from the National Priorities Project. It was your summer reading assignment, in case you missed it!

Here’s the current vote on H. J. Res. 106, that three-day spending bill. Do you want it to pass? Or do you think the government should shut down while Congress figures out how to spend? Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

The FY 2014 Spending Debate is NOT OVER

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

The mainstream media’s reporting on budgeting and spending is so poor that most people think the spending debate for 2014 is over. Far from it.

When Congress passed H.J. Res. 59, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, that set spending amounts for the rest of the 2014 fiscal year and for the 2015 fiscal year, easing up on the constraints of sequestration. As we reported before, the expanded budget will increase spending by roughly $550 per U.S. family, or $175 per person.

But the budget is not the spending! The FY 2014 spending debate is not over!

H.J. Res. 59 did include some amendments to existing law that lowered spending some and raised some revenue. It saves about $107 per U.S. family and decreases each family’s share of the $170,000 national debt by just under $580.

But Congress must still produce a spending bill before the expiration of the current continuing resolution on January 15th. If it doesn’t, the government will shut down. The amounts in that bill—that “omnibus appropriation,” in the D.C. lingo—will determine what the government is going to spend in fiscal 2014.

We aren’t big on conspiracy theories around here. Incompetence is usually the better explanation than malice. But the mainstream press has pretty uniformly misrepresented what’s going on here.

Here’s an example of inaccurate reporting about budgeting and spending, chosen with a quick Web search (not because we don’t like the author or his news outfit). Bloomberg news reported on December 15th, “The budget deal … would avoid a partial government shutdown when spending authority expires Jan. 15. It funds the government for the 2014 fiscal year that began Oct.1 and for the 2015 fiscal year.”

This stuff is just not true. The budget deal set spending amounts for fiscal 2014 and 2015, tweaking some spending and taxing here and there.

Maybe there are indirect ways that the deal ultimately passed as H.J. Res. 59 alleviated the threat of a shutdown—good feelings among Republican and Democratic spending honchos, for example. But in no sense did it avoid a shutdown. It was a deal between the House and Senate budget committee chairs, Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Patty Murray (D-WA). They aren’t the ones responsible for spending bills. Those are the appropriations committee chairs, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY) in the House and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in the Senate.

The spending debate for fiscal year 2014 is not over. In early 2014, Congress is going to produce a spending bill, and it is going to try to pass a spending bill—probably very quickly. If you care about these things, don’t let the insufficient news reporting lull you into thinking the spending debate is over.

The Budget Deal is a Budget Deal and a Spending Deal

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Contrary to expectations, Congress came up with a budget deal last week. The House passed it, and the Senate is expected to debate and pass H.J. Res. 59 early this coming week.

First, let’s review how wrong we were last week to assume a budget deal wouldn’t happen. In our fancy little blog post, “‘Unproductive’—And Gonna Stay That Way!“, we predicted that Congress was not going to come up with a budget deal, even though it assigned itself the task in the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014 back in October. By golly, they went ahead and came up with a deal. We were wrong.

Produced by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray (D-WA), it is kind of a budget deal and kind of a spending deal. We’d better talk about that some, because it’s a little difficult to understand.

A budget is a plan for spending. It’s the roadmap you’re laying out for the future. Spending is when you lay out the actual money. There’s some budgeting and some spending in this bill.

The budget part of the deal eases the limits on spending for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 that had been put in place by sequestration. Assuming spending rises to meet the limits allowed by this budget change, which is a good assumption, spending will be roughly $62 billion higher over the 2014-2023 period. That’s an increase in spending of roughly $550 per U.S. family, or $175 per person.

That spending won’t happen with the passage of this budget, though. It requires a spending bill to be passed before January 16, 2014, when temporary funding for the government under the current continuing resolution expires. Watch for that bill to come up and move quickly when Congress returns in January.

Then there’s the spending part of the deal. It does affect current spending programs, resulting in cuts overall. There are sections in the bill on “prevention of waste, fraud, and abuse”, on natural resources, federal civilian and military retirement, higher education, and transportation. The spending cuts across these areas amount to some $50 billion dollars over the next 10 years.

There is also an entire section that increases spending in the Medicare system on reimbursement of doctors—in the short term, at least. It promises cuts in spending again in the out years, but the chance of those cuts being implemented is fairly low. That section reduces the spending cuts in the other areas.

There are revenue measures in the bill—taxes, if you prefer. About $35 billion in new revenues for the government, coming from various places, including a surcharge on airline tickets to pay for those TSA pat-downs.

On the whole, the budget part of the deal allows for increased spending of $550 per U.S. family in the future. The spending part of the deal will save about $100 per U.S. family, while reducing the federal debt by about $575 per U.S. family.

It’s up to you to decide whether you think this is a good deal or a bad deal. There are a lot of moving parts to the debate. We think focusing on where the money moves might be helpful. So give it some thought, let your member of Congress and senators know what you think, and be sure to vote and comment on the bill here on WashingtonWatch.com so other people can know how you think things should turn out.

Here’s the current vote on H.J. Res. 59. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article about the bill.