Yesterday, the House and Senate budget committees both approved their respective versions of the federal budget resolution for fiscal year 2009 on party-line votes. Just as happened last year, both versions assume that the Bush tax cuts will expire at the end of 2010 or that, if they are extended, they will be subject to pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules. This means that the costs of any tax cut extension would have to be offset with increased taxes elsewhere or cuts in spending, so as to avoid an increase in the federal budget deficit. The House signaled that is it more committed to PAYGO, however, by including procedural protections for legislation to offset the costs of providing another year of AMT relief.
While the budget document is not binding and merely spells out the tax and spending goals of Congress, it can provide for procedural rules that may make certain legislation affecting the nation's fiscal health easier or more difficult to pass. For example, the budget resolution could include what are called "reconciliation instructions" that would instruct the relevant committees to write legislation to meet some fiscal goal, and this legislation could be passed in the Senate with only a simple majority of votes rather than the usual 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.
Republicans demanded that the reconciliation process be used to extend the Bush tax cuts without offsetting the costs. While budget resolutions are not law and cannot, by themselves, raise taxes, Republican lawmakers have taken to claiming that the resolution includes the largest tax increase in history since it does assume an extension of the Bush tax cuts. They made this same claim last year.
Senate Ready to Cave on PAYGO and Alternative Minimum Tax; House Says 'Not So Fast'
While the Republicans want to use the reconciliation process to increase the budget deficit, the House Democrats want to use it to keep the deficit under control. Their budget plan includes reconciliation instructions to produce revenue-neutral legislation that would delay a scheduled reduction in payments by Medicare to doctors and revenue-neutral legislation that would provide another year of relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).
Congress will surely provide another "patch" to the AMT this year, meaning a temporary extension of the increase in exemptions that keep most people from having to worry about the tax. The question is whether it will be paid for or deficit-financed, as was the patch enacted at the end of last year.
Last year the House did pass a bill that would have paid for an AMT patch mainly by closing tax loopholes that allow managers of buyout funds to pay taxes at lower rates and shelter their income in offshore tax avoidance schemes. In the Senate, that bill did get the votes of all the Democrats (except the Presidential candidates, who were campaigning) but could not overcome the filibuster by Republicans. If such a bill was offered this year under the reconciliation process to protect it from a filibuster, its chances of passage would be greatly increased.
Despite this, many Senate Democrats are insisting that they not pursue the matter. Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus was quoted by Congressional Quarterly saying, "think to cut to the chase, this Congress is not going to pay for AMT. I think it's a waste of time to have AMT paid for."
Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) told BNA that "My strong preference would be to have it offset. That was clearly not the will of the body last year and in our soundings, it's clearly not the will of the body this year."
Senate Democrats Plan to Spend "Surplus"
The budget resolutions project surpluses in fiscal years 2012 and 2013. Whether these surpluses will actually materialize is highly debatable. The budget assumes no more expenditures on Iraq beyond the $70 billion requested by the President. Further, the budget "baseline" used by the Congressional Budget Office, which assumes that the Bush tax cuts will expire at the end of 2010 as laid out under current law, does project a surplus in 2012 and 2013, but only if the Social Security surplus is included in the calculation. The Social Security surplus was not meant to be spent on other programs. It's not remotely clear that Congress can produce a surplus that does not include Social Security.
Nevertheless, Democrats in the Senate are planning to offer an amendment much like the one adopted last year that would show that the body intends to spend that "surplus" on extending parts of the Bush tax cuts that they describe as geared towards the "middle-class." While these do include the 10 percent rate and the child credit, they also include a cut in the estate tax to benefit families with estates worth several million dollars.
President Threatens Vetoes Over Small Differences in Spending
The Senate version calls for $18 billion above what the President has requested in discretionary spending (spending that must be approved each year) while the House version calls for about $22 billion over the President's request. This difference is relatively minor since the entire amount of discretionary spending requested by the President for fiscal year 2009 is $992 billion, and discretionary spending only accounts for around a third of all government spending. Nonetheless, the White House has signaled that the President is ready to veto bills that spend more on these programs than he has proposed, as he did last year. This raises the possibility that Congress could simply rely on continuing resolutions to keep the government running until the next president takes office.