Are Senators Reopening the Budget War?

Republican senators have questions about Democratic numbers.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 08: U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) speaks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee January 8, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held the confirmation hearing for five judiciary nominees today.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
May 8, 2014, 3:49 p.m.

The bi­par­tis­an budget agree­ment that Sen. Patty Mur­ray and Rep. Paul Ry­an brokered late last year was de­signed to stop Con­gress from lurch­ing from crisis to crisis.

But it’s not stop­ping some Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans from rais­ing ques­tions about the spend­ing fig­ures that Mur­ray, the Demo­crat­ic chair­wo­man of the Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee, in­tro­duced in­to the re­cord this week.

While Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans say they have no plans for an­oth­er stan­doff over fisc­al policy this year, the lead­ing Re­pub­lic­an on the Budget Com­mit­tee is thrust­ing the is­sue back in­to the spot­light and paint­ing Mur­ray’s fig­ures as a Demo­crat­ic “gim­mick” to stretch the spend­ing caps con­tained in the agree­ment.

“There are forces in the Sen­ate who without care­ful thought seem to feel their goal is to spend more than the lim­its,” said Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, an Alabama Re­pub­lic­an. “It’s been true in the Sen­ate since I’ve been here.”

Demo­crats flatly re­ject that ar­gu­ment.

“Chair­man Mur­ray be­lieves we should be build­ing on the Bi­par­tis­an Budget Act to cre­ate jobs and grow the eco­nomy, rather than re­open­ing the agree­ment both sides reached just a few months ago,” said Budget Com­mit­tee spokes­wo­man Helen Hare. “Con­sist­ent with this goal, the budget au­thor­ity al­loc­ated to the Sen­ate ap­pro­pri­ations com­mit­tee is the same as what was set in the Bi­par­tis­an Budget Act and what was filed in the House.”

So, why the dis­agree­ment?

At its core, this is a wonky de­bate over the dif­fer­ence between budget au­thor­ity and budget out­lays, two dif­fer­ent meas­ures of spend­ing that es­sen­tially al­low both sides to make the claims they do. Spe­cific­ally, budget au­thor­ity is what agen­cies can leg­ally ob­lig­ate the gov­ern­ment to pay, writes the Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice, while budget out­lays are ac­tu­al dis­burse­ments from the Treas­ury.

This week, Mur­ray filed al­loc­a­tions for ap­pro­pri­at­ors in­to the re­cord, as the budget deal re­quired. Ac­cord­ingly, she set budget au­thor­ity at $1.014 tril­lion. Ry­an also filed those al­loc­a­tions, and his budget au­thor­ity fig­ure matches Mur­ray’s — and both match the Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice’s baseline fig­ure.

However, where the dif­fer­ence comes in — and where Ses­sions is cry­ing foul — is that Mur­ray set budget out­lays at $1.16 tril­lion. That fig­ure, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments ob­tained by Na­tion­al Journ­al, is $19 bil­lion above Ry­an’s budget out­lays.

Demo­crats say this is much ado about noth­ing. Demo­crat­ic ap­pro­pri­at­ors in the Sen­ate plan to write their bills, which they’ll be­gin mark­ing up later this month, to the budget-au­thor­ity fig­ure, ac­cord­ing to Sen­ate aides.

But it is on this point that Ses­sions is skep­tic­al. “The ap­pro­pri­at­ors have al­ways — some of them, I used to think — got up in the morn­ing think­ing in­stead of how to spend the money they got, how to spend more than they’ve got,” he said. “They spend more time try­ing to fig­ure out how to spend more than spend­ing wisely the money they have.”

Sen. Dan Coats of In­di­ana, a Re­pub­lic­an ap­pro­pri­at­or, agreed. “It’s so symp­to­mat­ic of what hap­pens around here. Num­bers mean noth­ing. Every­body says this is it. This is as far as we can go.”

Some Demo­crats, though, say it’s com­mon for the out­lay fig­ure to dif­fer from the au­thor­ity fig­ure, and in­deed Ry­an’s out­lay fig­ure is $1.14 tril­lion, which com­ports with CBO’s es­tim­ate. For their part, Demo­crats ar­gue they’re build­ing in some flex­ib­il­ity should ap­pro­pri­at­ors need it.

“Ap­pro­pri­at­ors in the House and Sen­ate will be work­ing with that same over­all spend­ing lim­it,” Hare said.

Wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans can raise a budget point of or­der on the mat­ter looks un­likely, said a Re­pub­lic­an law­maker who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly. Ses­sions raised budget points of or­der last year.

“It’s not a little mat­ter that you can al­ways gim­mick the mod­est spend­ing lim­its we have. I’m un­happy about it,” he said. “I think it’s wrong.”

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