In my constant search for school funding, particularly green school building infrastructure funding, the same friend that told me about the Department of Energy’s loan programs pointed me in in the direction of another wonderful and wonky thing: budget reconciliation.
This happens because a reconciled budget only needs a simple majority in the Senate. The minority party can’t filibuster it and force the majority party to get 60 votes.
So people are looking at it for passing climate policy now.
There are tons of explainers out there about reconciliation so I won’t go over too many of the details. The question for us is whether school infrastructure spending can be part of a reconciliation process, particularly in a climate initiative. I’ve maybe found a path.
Super brief review
You know when your boss comes up with new stuff you have to do, and then you have figure out how that new stuff fits with the old stuff you always do? And how sometimes this is kind of inconsistent, hard to do, and annoying?
In that case you have to reconcile what your boss is telling you to do with what your company already does. Budget reconciliation is like that, except with federal budgets.
This means reconciling the tax code with spending required by mandatory programs. Those mandatory programs are outside the purview of the budget, finance, ways and means, and appropriations committees. All these things have to be reconciled when passing a budget.
It’s not that old of a process: a wonk named Charles Shultze came up with it during the Nixon years to give Congress more power in budgetary stuff, taking that power away from the President and make the whole thing more ‘rational’.
How to do it
To use reconciliation (as the graphic shows above), the House has to include reconciliation directives when coming up with the government’s yearly budget as a response to the President’s initial proposal. This means specific committees have to pass proposals that reconcile their stuff with with the tax code.
So house leadership (I think) sends the budget to the committees who then agree to the budget changes they want making sure the House rules allow for it. Then you combine these committees’ proposals into a reconciliation budget, send it to the Senate, and if it gets 50 votes it passes. Maybe.
The big danger is the Byrd Rule, which minority parties can invoke if they think a budget reconciliation goes beyond spending, revenue, or debt. That’s why you only get three chances to do reconciliation. And if your budget addresses any combination of these, it counts as a turn. Given that spending, revenue, and debt are so related it really only leaves you with one shot (particularly since the budget gets passed once a year).
But there are actually other kinds of dangers. The stuff people put into the reconciliation process has to be paid for within the window of the total budget, typically ten years. So there’s a deficit myth built into it.
Another danger is lack of chutzpah. This is a strictly Democratic disease in recent years. You can’t just rely on rules, process, and norms. Not anymore. You have to put power before process, rather than letting the process fence you in. You have to think about to use process to get what you want rather than let already existing norms prohibit you from dreaming. (Sanders is going to chair the Senate budget committee, so hopefully there’ll be a bit of chutzpah there.)
Could school infrastructure be in a reconciliation?
Education has definitely been part of previous budget reconciliations. It’s usually mentioned in the list of committees that have to approve proposals along with healthcare. Notably, Obamacare’s reconciliation came along with a rider expanding student loan and grant programs.
That rider came out of the Education and Labor Committee. Notice that the rider covers higher education funding, something that the federal government has purview over. Does it have purview of school infrastructure? Certainly that committee has a Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee covering
Education from early learning through the high school level, including but not limited to early care and education programs such as the Head Start Act and the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, special education, and homeless and migrant education; overseas dependent schools; career and technical education; school climate and safety, including alcohol and drug abuse prevention; educational equity, including facilities; educational research and improvement, including the Institute of Education Sciences; and pre-service and in-service teacher professional development, including Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Title II of the Higher Education Act.
There it is, equity and facilities. In principle, just based on the language here, this subcommittee could add language to a budget reconciliation calling for changed levels of spending on school infrastructure. Here are the members of that subcommittee and their recent business.
If there were to be a climate initiative through budget reconciliation, I’d target this subcommittee and pressure its members, specifically its chair, to look into a spending proposal for green school infrastructure retrofits, updates, and new construction.
The next question is what such a proposal would look like, on what legislative grounds would it stand, how would the program be structured, the funds dispersed, the funds accounted for in the deficit window, etc. How would the money make its way to Philly? And then to green contractors?
Then of course there’s the organizing question: how to get the proposal through the subcommittee, through the committee, into the reconciliation budget, through the Senate, etc.
A topic for a future post!
PS. As an epilogue, I’ve always got socialism on my mind when doing these analyses. What does it mean to be a socialist in this case? Can the repressive apparatus really provide the provisions we’re seeking? Aren’t all these committees and practices condensations of capitalist relations of exploitation? Is seeking funding for Philly school infrastructure doing anything to weaken those relations? Am I just getting sucked into capital’s gravitational pull? More to chew on.