Politics for Children

How to Explain the Budget Deal to a Tween

The budget is a complicated issue. Here’s a guide to understanding what’s going on.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
Dec. 17, 2013, 9:38 a.m.

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?

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