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Breaking down the congressional budget process

Congress reconciliationBreaking down the congressional budget process

By Flannery Winchester

Even on the best of days, the legislative process in Congress can be wonky and complicated. In a moment like this, with major packages of legislation evolving daily, it’s even harder to keep up with where the process stands. 

In other words: “If you’re confused, it’s because it’s confusing,” Tony Sirna, CCL’s Strategy Director, reassures us. Let’s break it down.

What is budget reconciliation?

Budget reconciliation is a process that Congress can use to fast-track a budget related bill. They can generally do it once per fiscal year, and it can be passed with a simple majority of just 51 votes in the Senate. All provisions in the bill must be budget related — an official called the “Senate parliamentarian” will make that call. She could toss out any provisions that she judges not to be relevant.

Over the last six weeks, CCL volunteers have been calling the Senate and the House, asking members of Congress to include a carbon price in the budget reconciliation package. A price on carbon is definitely relevant to the budget, so it would easily pass the parliamentarian, and it would make the overall package stronger on climate in a lot of ways.

Where is the budget process now?

So far, the House and Senate have both passed “budget resolutions,” which are the start of the reconciliation process. The budget resolution provides instructions to each committee on how much they are allowed to spend or expected to generate as part of the budget. These instructions don’t give much detail and are not even binding.

Dr. Danny Richter, CCL’s VP of Government Affairs, points to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works as an example. Their instructions simply said, “The Committee on Environment and Public Works of the Senate shall report changes in laws within its jurisdiction that increase the deficit by not more than $67,264,000,000 for the period of fiscal years 2022 through 2031.” 

Senate committee

Each committee gets a different topline number. A Senate memo earlier this summer gave a few bullet points outlining some policy recommendations, which we have explored in past blog posts. But otherwise, that’s it!

So right now, based on those instructions, committees in both the House and Senate are working out the details of what policies they want to include in the budget to meet those topline numbers. That’s what this handy graphic shows, which you can share with any other folks in your CCL chapter or your network who want to understand what Congress is up to:

Congress reconciliation

When will we know what’s included in the budget?

The next step of the process is for the committees to release their drafts publicly. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asked Senate committees to have their drafts ready by September 15. 

“September 15 is the date that all those committees are supposed to go from those few bullet points to something that resembles legislative text,” Danny explains. “That’s why we’ve been generating those tens of thousands of calls to Congress to maximize the possibility of a carbon fee being included.”

Keep in mind: Each chamber of Congress will put together a version of the budget that they think can pass, but the Senate version is likely to be the final version that is approved. The House may produce and even vote on their version of the budget in the coming weeks, but it’s the Senate version to pay the most attention to. Why? Because you can always pass something through the House with a bare majority, but this is the only chance to pass something through the Senate with 51 votes instead of 60. 

So, we are pushing hard for a carbon price to be included in the draft legislation released by the Senate in mid-September. If it is included in the draft legislation, our job as CCLers will be to cheer the carbon price and the entire reconciliation package through the rest of the legislative process, and ultimately across the finish line of passage in the Senate, passage in the House, and into law.

If a carbon price is not included in the draft legislation, that would mean the path for getting it included in the budget this year is narrowing slightly. Still, there would be hope in that scenario. It could take weeks or even months for Congress to finalize the package, and during that time, a carbon price could still be added. We’re prepared to push as long as needed to make the package as strong as possible.

What can you do today?

If you haven’t already, contact your Senator and contact your representative about including a carbon price in the budget reconciliation package. Phone banking efforts will continue through mid-month to prompt more CCLers to contact Congress, so you could sign up for a shift.

You can up the ante by adding the voices of your community leaders into the mix, too. Have your local elected officials, business executives, and faith leaders personally call their members of Congress. This will help to increase support (or reduce opposition) for carbon pricing in Congress.

Take your message to the media, as well, by writing letters to the editor and op-eds to publicize the benefits of carbon pricing and to urge Congress to enact this crucial policy.

This is the best shot we have had in a decade to get climate solutions at the scale we need. And as this summer’s hurricanes and wildfires have shown, climate change isn’t slowing down, and we can’t waste any more time getting our emissions under control. Let’s take advantage of this moment and push hard!

Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.