The latest budget deal between Democrats and Republicans in Congress is probably more complicated than most people care to admit. But it shouldn't be something just understood by the few political elite here in Washington.
So, here's a guide for all you kids out there who want to know a little more about the thing that people on the Hill and in the nation's capital are talking about.
I know what a budget is. But, like, what is the budget?
This isn't your parents' budget. So, let's go over some of the basics: The government needs money to operate. The budget determines how much money the federal government gets to spend, and where it gets the money (like from taxes).
How do you make this budget?
Every year, the president tells Congress how much money he wants the government to spend in the next year. Then, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives debate the proposal, vote on their own proposals, and (if all goes well) eventually agree on a final amount the government gets to spend the following year on things such as the military and health care and education. If both chambers agree, the budget does not need to be signed by the president.
That's it, right? No? OK, what happens next?
Then, Congress takes that money and divides it between 12 different pieces of legislation that cover different areas of the government. One particular bill could give money to various U.S. military bases around the world. Another to the national parks. In Congress, different committees, which are just groups of lawmakers who focus on specific things, debate and eventually vote on these issues.
If both the Senate and the House agree on the 12 different spending bills, the president gets to sign them into law. If the president doesn't like a bill, he can veto it and send it back to Congress. But if two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate really like the bill and vote for it again, they can overrule the president and pass it.
But that's not always how it happens.
But Congress hasn't been doing this. What has it been doing?
Well, for the past four years, Congress has not been able to agree on much. And that includes the budget. The government has not been funded by a normal budget, but via something called a continuing resolution, which basically keeps everything the same as the year before.
Since Congress has not been able to agree on how much money the federal government should spend in the next year, it has created a series of little crises that threaten to shut down the federal government. A shutdown means that a lot of government employees can't go to work, and some people don't receive government benefits. The last government shutdown happened in October and lasted more than two weeks. The national parks all closed, and the U.S. economy suffered. Before this latest deal, the government was only funded until Jan. 15, 2014.
Another consequence of fighting in Congress was sequestration. This happened when Congress couldn't agree on how to fund the government and instead set up automatic cuts that took billions of dollars from the military and other parts of the government. Some people, mainly Democrats, said this hurt the economy. Others, mainly Republicans, thought it was a good idea because it saved the U.S. some money.
This is changing now, though. What's in the deal?
Most members of Congress did not like sequestration and wanted to get rid of at least some of it. They also saw how unpopular the sequestration cuts were with the American people, and they wanted to finally get a deal done. So, the two people in charge of the budget in the House and the Senate got together to hammer out a compromise. That's a word we don't hear a lot, but it's an agreement where people don't get everything they want, but that overall helps move the country along. The two people were Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, and Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin. They announced the agreement last week.
This budget increases the amount of money the United States spends from $967 billion to $1.012 trillion in fiscal 2014 and $1.014 trillion in fiscal 2015. This agreement is halfway between proposals from House Republicans (who wanted less) and Senate Democrats (who wanted more).
It spends $520.5 billion on the military and $491.9 billion on other government programs.
The budget gets rid of some of those sequestration cuts to the military and to education programs like Head Start. Over the next two years, it gets rid of $63 billion of sequestration.
The budget also decreases our country's deficit. That's the amount of money that we spend that we don't have, annually. Unlike your parent's budget, the government almost always spends more money than it brings in from things like taxes. This deal should lower the deficit by $23 billion over the next 10 years.
And does the rest of Congress like this new deal?
The House passed the budget with a big majority. The Senate is supposed to pass it soon. The government will then be funded until Sept. 30, 2015. This is the first time that a divided Congress—which means that the House is run by one party and the Senate by the other—have agreed on a budget in nearly 30 years. Now, it's time for Congress to get back to work and figure out how all that money should get spent. That second part is called the appropriations process.
Are members now best buddies and working together?
Congress doesn't have to fight about the budget for another two years. Members in both the House and the Senate can try to focus on other big issues, like updating our tax code or improving Medicare. There are other big issues that Congress needs to talk about too, like the implementation of Obamacare and immigration reform.
But there are still some important things that Congress needs to sort out soon. Benefits for 1.3 million people who have been out of work for over 27 weeks expire at the end of December. Democrats want to extend unemployment benefits. Also, the debt limit, which tells the government how much money it can borrow, expires in March. If Congress doesn't extend it, there may be mayhem.
Maybe the budget is one step to agreement on other issues between Democrats and Republicans—but probably not.
So, that's the budget. Get it, now?