Approval Marks a Major Step Towards Enacting President's Agenda
On Wednesday, both the House and Senate approved a Congressional budget resolution for fiscal year 2010 that paves the way for several of the President's major initiatives. The resolution allows Congress to make new investments in education and clean energy and puts in place procedures that will make it easier for Congress to enact comprehensive health care reform. It also allows Congress to extend the Bush tax cuts for all but the richest Americans.
The budget resolution allows for about $3.5 trillion in federal spending in fiscal year 2010 and includes important tax and spending provisions related to years after that. It is not a law and is not binding, but puts in place caps on the spending that Congress appropriates each year, sets targets for tax and spending changes and includes certain procedural changes that make it more likely Congress will meet these goals.
Tax Cuts Extended for All but the Rich
For example, the budget resolution allows Congress to reduce revenues by a certain amount by extending the Bush income tax cuts. It is understood that the amount of revenue-reduction allowed would be sufficient to extend the Bush tax cuts for those with incomes below $250,000. It also allows for Congress to reduce revenues by preventing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) from expanding as it is scheduled to under current law. Similarly, it allows Congress to extend the estate tax rules in effect in 2009 instead of allowing the estate tax to revert to the rules put in place during the Clinton years, before Bush's cuts in the estate tax were enacted.
The resolution allows for Congress to enact these tax cuts without finding new revenue to pay for them -- on one condition, which is that Congress enacts a statutory pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rule that will (in theory) prevent Congress from enacting any more legislation that will increase the deficit. That means that any additional tax cuts (say, an extension of the Making Work Pay Credit that was enacted for two years as part of the economic stimulus package) would have to be combined with revenue-raising provisions to offset the costs.
Predictably, allies of former President George W. Bush have expressed horror that Democratic leaders and President Obama wish to extend the Bush tax cuts for 97.5 percent of Americans rather than 100 percent. The Democrats and the President would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for singles with incomes over $200,000 and married couples with incomes over $250,000 (which make up roughly the richest 2.5 percent of taxpayers).
For their part, House Republicans used the budget debate to demonstrate to the public just how lopsided the tax code would be if their goals were ever realized and just how much government would have to shrink because of the revenue losses that would result. Earlier this month, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee presented his tax and spending plan which would cut and privatize Medicare, convert Medicaid into limited block grants to states, repeal the recently enacted economic stimulus law and deeply cut the relatively small amount of government spending devoted to non-military, non-mandatory programs.
Citizens for Tax Justice published a report concluding that under this GOP plan, over a third of taxpayers, mostly low- and middle-income families, would pay more in taxes than they would under the House Democratic plan in 2010, while the richest one percent of taxpayers would pay $75,000 less, on average.
Final Budget Leaves Out the Senate's Outrageous Estate Tax Cut
Progressives scored a victory when Democratic leaders agreed to exclude from the final budget an amendment adopted by the Senate during its budget debate on April 2 which would slash the estate tax to benefit multi-millionaires. Before the Senate approved this amendment, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said, "It is so stunning, so outrageous that some would choose this hour of national crisis to push for an amendment to slash the estate tax for the super wealthy." His common sense view carried the day as negotiators hammered out the final resolution.
The tax cuts enacted under President Bush in 2001 scheduled a gradual repeal of the estate tax, with the amount of assets exempted from the tax gradually increasing over a decade and the tax rate on estates gradually dropping until the estate tax would disappear entirely in 2010. Like almost all of the Bush tax cuts, this cut in the estate tax expires at the end of 2010, meaning that rules scheduled under President Clinton would come back into effect in 2011.
The budget resolutions passed out of the House and Senate budget committees in March both assumed that the estate tax rules in place in 2009 would be made permanent, meaning the Bush estate tax cut would be partially made permanent but the estate tax would not disappear entirely in 2010. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report finding that about 99.7 percent of estates would be untouched by the tax under this proposal.
Incredibly, 51 Senators voted in favor of the amendment offered by Senators Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) to cut the estate tax even more than this. The 2009 estate tax rules exempt the first $7 million of assets passed on by a married couple (as well as assets they leave to charity) and tax the rest at a rate of 45 percent. The Kyl-Lincoln amendment called for a $10 million exemption for married couples and a 35 percent rate.
Taking Steps Towards Enacting the President's Priorities
Progressives scored another victory in the area of health care. House and Senate leaders decided to include in the final budget resolution a mechanism known as "reconciliation" which will allow the Senate to enact health care reform and higher education loan changes with a simple majority vote.
The practice of filibustering legislation in the Senate has, over the years, turned into a default rule that three fifths the Senate's members must agree to pass a bill. This means that legislation supported by Senators representing a majority of Americans is often blocked. Many advocates fear that this is exactly what could happen to health care reform and many other of the President's important initiatives.
Reconciliation is a way around this obstacle. A budget resolution can include reconciliation instructions specifying that committees will pass legislation that can then pass the full House and Senate under a streamlined process. In the Senate, that streamlined process means that the bill can be passed with just 51 votes.
The particular version of reconciliation included in this budget is optional, meaning Democratic leaders will resort to using it only if bipartisan consensus proves elusive.
Several Republican Senators, and some Democratic Senators, have taken the view that majority rule is undemocratic, and have called reconciliation a partisan ploy to "ram through" the President's agenda. (The idea of the Senate moving too quickly is a little hard for any Hill observer to understand.) More importantly, enacting health care reform will require Congress to raise a great deal of revenue, and finding a large bipartisan majority for that might be a challenge.
Finally, some have complained that reconciliation is only to be used for deficit-reduction, but this is entirely unconvincing because these are largely the same members who voted in favor of reconciliation bills during the Bush years that actually increased the deficit by cutting taxes.