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Straight Talk for Seniors®: The 2017 Federal Budget Process and Senior Programs

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The federal budget process is rarely simple and straightforward—even for policy wonks. This year promises to be even more complex—and even more important for programs serving older Americans.

Republicans in Congress have indicated that they plan to use budget process tools to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and potentially pass significant cuts and changes to programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Below is a tentative timeline based on the best information we have today. Let’s start with a basic overview of how the federal budget plays out.

Budget Resolution
The House and the Senate begin the budget process by passing a resolution, or blueprint, that sets broad targets for spending, saving, and tax policy for the coming year. The resolution is only adopted by the full Congress; it isn’t signed into law by the President.

Annual Appropriations
Using the budget resolution as a guide, Congressional committees divide up funding for government programs that require an annual allocation, such as those under the Older Americans Act (OAA). There are 12 annual appropriations bills that the full Congress must pass before the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1. In recent years, however, Congress has failed to meet this deadline and has funded programs via a continuing resolution (CR) until the bills are finalized. The current CR runs through April 28.

Budget Reconciliation
In some years, Congress uses budget reconciliation as yet another budgeting tool. This happens when the majority party wants to change tax policy and/or mandatory entitlement programs (like Medicare, Medicaid, and SNAP), but it doesn’t have enough votes in the Senate to do so. In the Senate, only a simple majority of 51 votes is needed to pass a budget reconciliation. All other bills are subject to filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass. The catch is that in budget reconciliation, changes must have a budgetary impact, but the net result of the entire bill cannot increase the federal deficit in the long term.

Now, let’s take a look ahead at 2017.

January-February: Repeal of the Affordable Care Act

When Congress returned last week, Senate Republicans immediately used a second FY17 budget resolution to lay out instructions and resources to repeal the ACA through budget reconciliation. The budget resolution is expected to pass Congress in January.

For the budget reconciliation, Republicans are expected to use as a starting point legislation (H.R. 3762) that they passed at the end of 2015, but President Obama vetoed. That legislation repealed some, but not all, of the ACA, including the Prevention and Public Health Fund.

Because budget reconciliation requires only 51 votes to pass, it makes it easier for the Senate to repeal the ACA with the current 52-member Republican majority. Republicans would like to have a bill on President-elect Trump’s desk by Feb. 20, but many believe it will take longer, particularly with increasing concerns about the over 20 million Americans who could lose their insurance coverage under repeal.

February-October: Funding for Senior Programs

Meanwhile, Congress plans to finish FY17 appropriations before the current CR expires on April 28. This will provide final funding for discretionary programs such as OAA senior nutrition and supportive services, elder abuse protections, transportation support, and energy assistance.

Then the FY18 budget process will begin. The incoming Trump Administration may release a broad initial budget request as early as February—and a more detailed document later—to lay out its vision for funding, savings, and revenues.

Congress also will draft its own FY18 budget resolution, setting out a new blueprint for the upcoming fiscal year. Many expect the resolution to increase defense spending, and cut non-defense discretionary spending, such as OAA programs. Congress is supposed to pass FY18 appropriations by Oct. 1, but may not finalize them until the end of December.

June-December: Potential Changes to Taxes, Medicare, and Medicaid

Republicans have indicated that they will also use the FY18 budget resolution to set up a reconciliation process to enact a tax reform bill—and potentially cut and restructure key programs like Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

The incoming Trump Administration has made tax cuts and investments in programs like infrastructure a top priority. To pay for these proposals and/or cut government spending, there could be significant cuts and restructuring changes to critical health and safety net programs. Last year, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and House Budget Chair Tom Price (R-GA), President-elect Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, called for these kind of changes, including turning Medicaid into a block grant program and cutting it by an estimated $913 billion over 10 years.

While things will continue to evolve over the coming year, it’s clear that there are challenges ahead for programs that older Americans and their families depend on. Stay tuned to our Straight Talk blog for all the latest news.

What questions do you have about the federal budget process? Please ask them in the comments section below.

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Howard Bedlin

About Howard Bedlin

Howard Bedlin is NCOA's Vice President of Public Policy and Advocacy. He is responsible for all of NCOA’s federal and state legislative advocacy efforts on issues and programs of concern to older adults, which include the Older Americans Act, Medicare, Medicaid, long-term care, income security, and community services programs.

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