CHN: Bruising Budget Battle Looms; Entitlements at Stake

Advocates for low- and moderate-income Americans are bracing for what could be the most important budget season in Washington in years. All the pieces are in place to make this year’s battle over the federal budget particularly bruising: An enormous $400 billion federal deficit, conservative Republican members who view last November’s election as a mandate for cutting, and the invoice for three straight years of massive tax breaks for the rich and corporations finally coming due.
Proposals to cut, curtail or limit programs critical to those most vulnerable will be considered, including possible cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, housing assistance and veteran’s disability payments. Other key programs may also be at risk, including Food Stamps, TANF and EITC. There will be proposals to freeze funding yet again for many other programs, allowing inflation to cut away at the dollar value. The incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Judd Gregg (R-NH) said in December, “This cannot afford to be a gunds-and-butter term…You’ve got to cut the butter.”

The Coalition on Human Needs is working with its member organizations to deliver a simple message to Congress and the President: “Reject federal budget proposals to cut vital services.”

The Process, In Brief
The process kicks off when the President sends his proposed budget to Congress on February 7. His budget will contain detailed spending suggestions for every federal program — both mandatory and discretionary programs. Mandatory programs (sometimes called entitlements) include Medicare, Medicaid, TANF, Social Security and Food Stamps. Discretionary, or appropriated, programs must be funded (appropriated) by Congress every year, and include housing programs, Head Start, K-12 education, some child care, veteran’s benefits and many others.

Congress will take the President’s suggestions under consideration in developing a congressional budget resolution. Unlike the President’s budget, the resolution will not outline program-by-program spending but rather set out broad categories of spending. Many observers are predicting Congress will feel pressure to cut or freeze funding yet again for discretionary programs not related to war or homeland security.

But cuts or freezes in discretionary spending are just one concern for human needs advocates. Many also expect that this year’s resolution will set in motion a process for cutting mandatory (entitlement) spending, called reconciliation. If Congress approves a budget resolution that contains a reconciliation directive, then key committees will be instructed to produce legislation that generates savings through cuts. Those savings may be made through cutting, capping or block granting Medicaid, cutting Medicare or other mandatory programs. Congress may also consider inserting changes to the budget process in the congressional budget resolution, making it easier to pass additional tax cuts but putting constraints on the ability to increase funding for low-income programs.

The key to putting the brakes on reconciliation or changes to the budget process will be stopping a bad budget resolution in its tracks. Because conservatives have cemented their control over the House and the Senate, it is even more important to persuade moderate Republicans and Democrats to resist any attempt to eviscerate low-income programs in the budget resolution.

Training and Briefings for Advocates
How Congress goes about setting a federal budget can be utterly confusing but the choices made during this process have very real implications for the people on the ground – those who are relying on child care help, housing, Medicaid, SSI payments, or Food Stamps.

The Coalition on Human Needs wants to ensure that every single advocate for low- and moderate-income people is engaged early on in the budget process. We developed a Budget Basics 101 piece designed to give the basics of what’s at stake this year, how the process works, and how and when to deliver your message.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities held a widely attended training and briefing on Thursday, January 13, cosponsored by CHN, AFSCME, OMB Watch, Fair Taxes for All, National Women’s Law Center and the National Education Association. In conjunction with Connect for Kids, the Coalition held a conference call on January 11 with advocates in the states to provide basic training on the process and tips for talking about how the President’s budget affect families in the states. Another call is planned for January 19.

For More Information
CHN: Federal Budget Basics 101
CHN: How to Talk About the Impact of Federal Budget Cuts on the People in Your State (html) (1/11/05)
Washington Post: Bush’s Budget Expected to Be Aggressive (1/12/05)

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