Posted by Renaud Duplay
The recent debate over the United States federal budget, which led to a partial government shutdown, was at times hard to follow. Behind the debate over health care reform, lay also a more procedural struggle over the way to prepare the budget on Capitol Hill. Indeed, part of the butting of heads has resulted from a disagreement over what to negotiate on, in the first place. The US Constitution is relatively light on how the budget should be passed, so many legal options were considered in recent weeks, including: passing a continuing resolution to fund federal services and agencies; passing a continuing resolution linked with a defunding of the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare; funding individual federal agencies on a vote by vote basis; funding individual programs of federal agencies given expected adverse impacts of the shutdown, such as on cancer research trials. These options were, to make it even more complicated, linked to various stances on the federal government debt ceiling: separate decision-making, a linked agreed increase, or what resulted, a temporary suspension. In all this a new federal budget for the new budget year was not on the table. This is now on Congress’ to do list for the next three months.
All of this is possible because the US federal budget works a little bit like ordering à la carte in a restaurant: you can skip the main course if you don’t feel like it and still end up enjoying the meal (or, more often, not really). Indeed, implementing a deal over the US federal budget requires selecting from a different menu of votes depending on the content of the deal. In addition, authority to spend can be given in various ways: either by appropriations bills – for federal agencies’ operating costs for instance – or by specific legislation that grants authority to spend on entitlement programs until this very legislation is modified or repealed. Those programs are called “mandatory” which by the way sets the tone for any future discussion on them.