After budget resolution, the real work begins

The process of allocating taxpayer dollars starts in earnest as the 13 separate appropriations bills make their way through committees.

Pete Souza/The White House
President Barack Obama (r.) attends a budget meeting on Saturday, January 24.

It’s make-or-break, do-or-die, life-and-death, a battle so royal that even hyphenated clichés can’t do it justice!

What are we talking about? Washington’s annual struggle over the budget resolution, of course.

Every spring, the press suffuses with drama Congress’s consideration of the budget submitted by the president, turning it into the political equivalent of a heavyweight bout.

Will the White House get the money it wants? Will the president’s priorities be derailed? Can the Washington Nationals remember to run the bases counterclockwise?

OK, that last one was just a personal cri de coeur. But here’s what they’re not telling you: The budget vote isn’t that important.

Here’s the current state of play: Both the House and Senate already have approved their own versions of a $3.6 trillion federal budget. The two chambers still have to get together and meld these versions into a mutual plan.

Then they'll vote on it and declare victory. But that end result won't be binding. It won't be a law. It won't get signed by the president.

It’ll be more of a ... promise. It’s called a “budget resolution,” after all, and that second word is key. It’s as if Congress is saying that this year it will go to the gym more, call home every Sunday, and reduce the annual deficit to less than $600 billion within the next five years.

True, the budget plan isn’t completely irrelevant. It operates as a kind of annual top line beyond which department heads dare not go. It serves as a political marker, providing (or denying) a chief executive the appearance of momentum.

But the fact is that legal details of new programs – such as the expansion of healthcare that President Obama wants – will have to be set out in separate bills later in the year. Congress does not even pass a budget plan every year, though the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 requires it. As yet, no House speaker has been hauled away to the hoosegow in handcuffs.

When the budget plan is passed, the real grinding work of allocating taxpayer dollars begins as the 13 separate appropriations bills begin to make their way through committees.

You can tell where the actual power is by looking at where the most senior senators and representatives choose to sit.

In the House, the chairman of the Budget Committee is Rep. John Spratt Jr. (D) of South Carolina. He’s been in office a fairly long time, having been elected in 1982. But the head of the Appropriations Committee is Rep. David Obey (D) from Wisconsin, who was elected in 1969.

This split is even more pronounced in the Senate. Budget panel chief Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota won his seat in 1986. But Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, the appropriations chairman, was elected in 1962. He’s No. 3 on the Senate’s seniority list.

And – here’s the kicker – this is Senator Inouye’s first year in the powerful post. Before him, the top person on the appropriations panel was Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, who is only the longest-serving senator of all time!

Senator Byrd was elected in 1959. Apparently he served in the Roman Senate before that.

So, to sum up, appropriations is where the real money is. Of course, they don’t pass all those appropriations bills every year, either ... but that’s another story, for another week.

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