Unraveling “DC Speak:” The “ABC’s” of Terminology in the High Stakes World of Federal Budgeting

This week members of Congress return to Capitol Hill for their “lame duck” session. If you’re wondering about the phrase, “lame ducks” are those members who either lost their election (or did not seek another term), but are still in office because their term has not yet officially ended. So a “lame duck session” of Congress is one that occurs after the election but before new members of Congress are sworn in in January.

The question about lame duck sessions is whether anyone will take their work seriously. I’m a former congressional staffer, and as one of my old bosses said after announcing he was retiring from Congress, “Why should anyone listen to me? I’m a dead body.”

Yet this lame duck session has a number of serious issues to confront on which all bodies will be weighing in – as should their constituents. And they involve some budget terms that might use some explaining.

Continuing Resolution – The government is currently being funded by a “continuing resolution.” The current fiscal year – FY 2011 – actually began on October 1, 2010; right before Representatives and Senators went home to campaign. Yet Congress failed to enact any of the twelve separate appropriations bills which keep federal agencies running. Instead, they adopted a “continuing resolution” (CR) as an interim measure. What a CR does is provide funding for areas of the federal government whose specific appropriation has not yet been adopted before the new fiscal year begins – and this year that’s all of them – and funds them at the same level as they were for the previous fiscal year. CRs are temporary, and the current one provides funding through December 3, 2010.

Stop-Gap Spending – Another name for “Continuing Resolutions.”

Omnibus Spending Bill – Rather than having both the House and Senate approve each of the twelve outstanding appropriations bills, Congress will likely bundle all the appropriations bills into a single (or a couple of smaller) “omnibus” funding packages. “Omnibus” spending bills often include large numbers of completely unrelated pieces of legislation, and can be worth hundreds of billions – if not trillions – of dollars.

These vast documents are not unprecedented. But if history tells us anything, they are often enacted fast, with little debate, and even less understanding of just what exactly is in them.

Deficits and Debt – There’s also a lot of discussion about “deficits” and “debt.” Last week the President’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform released a draft report. The Commission, known popularly as either the “Deficit” or “Debt” Commission, was formed in January by President Obama to advise the administration on options for addressing the U.S. national debt. Their final report is due on December 1, 2010.

The confusion about the common name of the Commission is indicative of the general confusion about the terms “deficit” and “debt,” which have very different and specific meanings, although they are sometimes used interchangeably.

Each year, revenues come into the U.S. Treasury from such things as individual and corporate income taxes, payroll taxes, etc. The government then spends money on a vast array of federal programs. When revenues (money coming in) are higher than expenditures (money going out), you have a surplus. Much more frequently, when expenditures exceed revenues, you have a deficit.

“The federal deficit” refers to the amount that spending exceeds revenues in a particular year. For example, the Treasury just announced that the federal deficit for FY 2010 – which ended on September 30, 2010 – was almost $1.3 trillion. “The National Debt” refers to the cumulative value of each year’s federal deficit or surplus. Today, the debt is approaching $14 trillion.

These are just some of the many budget-related terms you’ll be hearing coming out of Washington over the next weeks and months. As part of NPP’s continuing work to demystify the federal budget, we’ll be looking at more of them each week.

Here’s Where You Come In – We invite you, as you follow the dizzying but critical discussions about the budget and the U.S. economy, to suggest to us confusing terminology or ideas so we can better achieve our goal of improving the transparency of the federal budget process. Contact us at info@nationalpriorities.org