Hot Summer Budget Battle #2: The 2014 Budget

20111106_64  US Senator Barbara Mikulski (red jacket)

Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski (red jacket) / Photo by Edward Kimmel

They don't agree on much, but in at least one way the House and Senate are on the same page: They both want to increase military funding next year.

On May 21, the House Appropriations Committee approved 2014 spending levels for all 12 areas of the federal government. Despite spending caps that are currently the law of the land, the committee grew military spending by more than 5 percent – as compared to 2013 funding after the cuts of sequestration – and proposed to offset this funding increase with extra cuts to domestic spending. In particular, Labor, Health and Human Services and Education programs would see a cut of 18.6 percent. Though it's not clear how any given program would fare under this funding reduction, an 18.6 percent cut could mean $2.56 billion sliced from Title I grants to disadvantaged public schools, $4.24 billion cut from Pell grants, and $1.42 billion less for Head Start, according to the Committee for Education Funding.

But that's not the end of the story. Not by a long stretch.

On June 18, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its own funding levels for next year. The Senate added even more military funding than the House did, but also boosted spending for Labor, Health and Human Services and Education programs by about 10 percent – meaning programs like Head Start and a host of other social service and education initiatives would fare substantially better under the Senate's plan than under the House's.

So whose numbers will actually become law? To answer that, a quick refresher on the budget process (more detail available in Federal Budget 101). The process has five steps:

Step 1: The President submits a budget request to Congress

Step 2: The House and Senate pass budget resolutions

Step 3: House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees “markup” appropriations bills

Step 4: The House and Senate vote on appropriations bills and reconcile differences

Step 5: The President signs each appropriations bill and the budget becomes law

The funding levels just approved in the House and Senate are the beginning of step number three. There’s a big problem, though. While both the House and Senate passed budget resolutions (perhaps better known as Competing Visions) in step two, they failed to reconcile their substantial differences. That's why each chamber is working with (very) different numbers as they go about writing appropriations bills. Left in the balance is uncertainty over whether the across-the-board cuts of sequestration will stay in effect in 2014.

And this sets the stage for another off-the-rails budgeting process for next year – just like we saw this year.