Can Nonprofits Assess Their Situation When Congress Won’t Pass a Budget?

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March 31, 2012; Source: The Hill

It is an increasingly difficult challenge for nonprofits to monitor where they and the issues they are concerned about stand in the federal budget. Before the strident partisan breakdown in Congress during the past few years, Congress used to eventually pass a budget that the president would sign. But beginning in the fall of 2010, the federal government began operating on a series of continuing resolutions rather than approving a full budget. Even the FY2012 budget was actually a combination of a continuing resolution plus the deficit reduction deal negotiated between the White House and House Speaker John Boehner. That followed a May 2011 vote in the Democratic-majority Senate, which voted unanimously (97-0), not to take up the president’s 2012 budget.

This year, the House of Representatives rejected President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget by a vote of 414 to zero. Not a single Democrat voted in favor of the president’s plan, but there was a catch. The president’s budget resolution was introduced by Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who did so without the approval, authorization, or cooperation of the Democrats. Both the White House and key Congressional Democratic leaders said that Mulvaney’s resolution was simply the top-line revenue and spending numbers from the budget, not the budget detail, which would have provided, according to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), “the explanation to the American people about what’s in the president’s budget.” Van Hollen called Mulvaney’s resolution “a very misleading version of what the president has asked us to do.”

Another budget proposal, made by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), was presented to pass a budget along the lines of the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission’s recommendations. That got all of 38 “Yea” votes—16 Republicans and 22 Democrats—constituting less than overwhelming support for a bipartisan budget. Cooper noted, however, that this was “the first time that a Bowles-Simpson budget has been allowed on the floor of the House or the Senate,” particularly important since the commission’s recommendations were given a cold shoulder by President Obama when first released.

So what budget document should nonprofits look at to glean where they and their constituents stand in fiscal year 2013? In place of the Bowles-Simpson and Obama budgets, the House passed the budget outlined by Republican policy wonk Paul Ryan. A statement on the lack of comity between the political parties, it passed 228 to 191 with no Democratic support whatsoever. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) pronounced the Ryan budget “terrifying,” and well it might be. But is the Ryan budget real? Is it worth paying attention to?

Should Mitt Romney become president, the Ryan budget could be front and center—or front and right—since Ryan endorsed Romney for the Republican presidential nomination last week. Officially titled “Pathway to Prosperity,” the Ryan plan would budgetarily eliminate the Affordable Care Act (often referred to as “Obamacare”). The Path to Prosperity would be built on tax cuts for the wealthy but spending cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, and non-defense discretionary spending programs that would fall well below the spending caps established in the deficit reduction agreement.

Budgets are statements of the intersection of government priorities and moral values. The president’s budget reveals some of what Democrats believe, Ryan’s budget tells a story about the Republican vision (albeit without the Tea Party wing, which viewed Ryan’s 2011 budget proposals as too centrist). The Ryan budget is anathema to President Obama, as the nation will learn when the president addresses the budget on Wednesday at an Associated Press luncheon. For all intents and purposes, it doesn’t look like there will be an approved budget for fiscal year 2013—be it based on the proposals of President Obama, Congressman Ryan, or the Bowles-Simpson Commission—for nonprofit leaders to investigate and understand.—Rick Cohen