Friday, October 31st, 2014
Mostly False
Ryan
The Murray-Ryan deal "is the first divided-government budget agreement since 1986."

Paul Ryan on Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 in a press conference

Rep. Paul Ryan said bipartisan budget deal is the first in divided government since 1986

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., announce deal for new spending limits for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

Lawmakers and pundits heralded the recent agreement on federal spending reached between House Republicans and Senate Democrats as a rare, bipartisan accord between a deeply divided Congress.

Some went so far as to suggest that it was historic, including Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican and chief budget negotiator for the GOP.

"This is the first divided-government budget agreement since 1986," Ryan told reporters Dec. 10, 2013, when announcing the deal alongside Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The deal has since passed the House and Senate.

We knew that recent Congresses have clashed on federal spending over the years, but was it really almost three decades since two parties came together to cut a deal? Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

Budgets 101

First, a brief explainer on the agreement.

The legislation Ryan and Murray hammered out averts a government shutdown in January 2014 by funding federal agencies and providing some relief from the across-the-board cuts known as the sequester. The sequester cuts are unpopular among many Democrats and some Republicans because the cuts slash discretionary spending, including defense, in an across-the-board fashion, rather than allowing lawmakers the ability to cut less-crucial programs and save more urgent ones.

The agreement also raises some fees on air travel, requires federal workers to contribute more to their pensions, and decreases retirement benefits for veterans younger than 62.

Under the agreement, budget caps for discretionary spending are set at $1.012 trillion for fiscal year 2014 and $1.014 trillion for fiscal year 2015. For 2014, that figure is $45 billion more than it would have been under sequestration, and it’s $18 billion more for 2015.

Also notable — and often unexplained in media accounts — is that the bill includes language that serves the purpose of a "budget resolution," an annual fiscal blueprint agreed to by both chambers.

A budget resolution provides a general outline of spending, taxation and deficit reduction. While passage of a budget resolution is not mandatory, it can be valuable to lawmakers by easing the process of passing spending bills. The president does not sign it.

Typically, if a budget resolution is passed, it happens relatively early during a congressional session, and it is passed independently of spending bills. But due to partisan battling, that didn’t happen this year; to rectify this, the spending bill belatedly included language that made it like a budget resolution as well as a spending bill.

Divided government vs. divided Congress

We contacted Ryan’s staff the day after he made the comment we’re checking, and they offered a key clarification: They said Ryan had meant to say it was "the last time a budget resolution was adopted while Congress was controlled by opposing parties was 1986."

This is an important distinction. Divided government means that each major party controls one of the following three entities: the presidency, the House of Representatives or the Senate. By contrast, a divided Congress means that one party controls one chamber of Congress and the other controls the other chamber.

Both scenarios mean that the levers of power are divided between the parties, but divided government is much more common than a divided Congress in recent history, so whether you use one phrasing or the other leads to a different outcome. We’ll look at both here.

We should add that Ryan has used both formulations. On Dec. 12, for instance, ABC quoted him saying: "This is the first time, with a divided Congress, that we’ve had a budget agreement since 1986, when both houses were controlled by the other parties."

The following chart outlines control of each chamber of Congress and the presidency since 1986.

 

Congress

           

Year

House control

Senate control

President control

99th

1985-87

Democratic

           

Republican

           

Republican

           

100th

1987-89

Democratic

           

Democratic

           

Republican

           

101st

1989-91

Democratic

           

Democratic

           

Republican

           

102nd

1991-93

Democratic

           

Democratic

           

Republican

           

103rd

1993-95

Democratic

           

Democratic

           

Democratic

           

104th

1995-97

Republican

           

Republican

           

Democratic

           

105th

1997-99

Republican

           

Republican

           

Democratic

           

106th

1999-2001

Republican

           

Republican

           

Democratic

           

107th

2001-03

Republican

           

Republican/

Democratic

Republican

           

108th

2003-05

Republican

           

Republican

           

Republican

           

109th

2005-07

Republican

           

Republican

           

Republican

           

110th

2007-09

Democratic

           

Democratic

           

Republican

           

111th

2009-11

Democratic

           

Democratic

           

Democratic

           

112th

2011-13

Republican

           

Democratic

           

Democratic

           

113th

2013-15

Republican

Democratic  

Democratic

 

As the chart shows, the usual state of affairs has been for the same party to control both chambers of Congress. Since 1986, the only exceptions are the two annual sessions of the 112th Congress, the first session of the 113th, and the second session of the 107th Congress, when a mid-session party switch tipped the Senate from Republican to Democratic control at a time when the House was in GOP hands. (That change occurred on May 24, 2001, which was after the Senate agreed to a budget resolution for the first session.)

Here’s a cross-tabulation of party control in Congress with the passage of a budget from 1986 to 2013.

 

Party control

Passed budget

Failed to pass budget

Unified Congress and president

6

3

President of one party, Congress unified under other party

13

1

Divided Congress

2

3

 

So, if you analyze Ryan’s words literally, he’s wrong: There are actually 15 instances since 1986 in which "divided government" produced a budget agreement, 13 with a unified Congress in opposition to the president and two with a divided Congress.

On the other hand, if you cut him some slack and rate his claim based on the term "divided Congress," he’s right -- but it’s also not all that enlightening, since there have been just four annual sessions of Congress that have occurred under divided control during the past 28 years. In 2002, with the House controlled by Republicans and the Senate run by Democrats for most of the year, no budget resolution was agreed to. The Republican House and Democratic Senate also failed to reach an accord in 2011 and 2012.

Roy Meyers, a political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a former analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, agreed that Ryan’s point is correct but doesn’t mean much. He added that the wider understanding of the term "divided government" is a split in control between Congress and the White House -- something that doesn’t matter in evaluating budget resolutions, since they only need Congress’ approval, not the president’s.

Meyers also emphasized that just because one party controls both chambers of Congress doesn’t guarantee a budget resolution will be passed. Republicans controlled Congress in 1998, 2004 and 2006 but didn’t pass a budget. Democrats also failed in 2010 despite running the House and Senate.

Patrick Griffin, an American University government professor who worked in legislative affairs for President Bill Clinton, added that the final spending bills are more important than the budget resolution, anyway.

Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton, he said, all had budget battles with the opposing party controlling Congress, and this made the final pact more powerful once the White House gave its blessing.

"For (a budget resolution) to have consequence, it has to involve all the institutions," Griffin said.

Our ruling

At the initial news conference, Ryan said the current deal "is the first divided-government budget agreement since 1986." He later clarified his statement to note it’s actually the first one "with a divided Congress" since 1986.

The first claim is wrong -- there are actually more than a dozen instances since 1986 in which "divided government" produced a budget agreement. And while the second version of Ryan's claim is right, it's not very significant, since Congress has been under divided-party control for just four years out of the past 28. On balance, we rate Ryan’s claim Mostly False.