‘Chimps’ delaying federal budget fight

April 4, 2011

On Capitol Hill this week, the fight over the federal budget is being delayed by chimps.

The problem is not actual chimpanzees running amok in the Capitol’s ornate hallways. That might actually fix the budget problem as frightened Republicans and Democrats barricaded themselves in committee rooms. Forced together, they might learn to see one another not as enemies, but as well-meaning people with honest and surmountable differences.

Nope. It’s not anything like that.

Instead, what’s holding up the budget fight is something called “Changes in Mandatory Programs,” which are abbreviated “ChIMPS” in Hill-speak. With a government shutdown looming Friday, these have become an important point of contention between the two parties.

Why these measures are attracting attention now takes a little explaining. Please pay attention: Your patience will be rewarded with more chimp jokes.

The federal budget is split into two parts. First, there are “discretionary” items, which are things that the government must decide to pay for every year.

These include the budgets for many federal agencies. Each year, Congress can decide to give them more money than the previous year, less money or no money at all.

The other part of the budget is composed of “mandatory” items. These are things that Congress has decided to pay for every year, without having to be approved each time.

They include Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies and education loans. Some of them get the same amount of money every year. Others rise and fall with the level of need. If more people qualify for Medicare, for instance, the government has to spend more money to provide them benefits.

The budget battle so far has mainly been about discretionary spending — the things that Congress must re-up every year.

But now, as the two sides bicker over how to cut about $33 billion from this year’s budget, Democrats want more money to be taken out of the mandatory programs. These changes (that’s the “ch” in “chimps”) have also been used to lower budget deficits in prior years.

“If you use the word ‘chimp,’ it helps with the focus,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has done the most to publicize the dispute over whether the measures should be used in larger numbers this time around. He said the name helps make people curious about part of the eye-glazing budget process: “Calling them chimps gets people to pay attention and say ‘Oh, what’s that?’ ”

A “chimp” could, for instance, mean taking a few billion dollars away from what’s available for farm subsidies. In that case, the Agriculture Department would have to revise its standards for these subsidies, to make a smaller pot of money go further.

Democrats might prefer these kind of cuts because they don’t kill a particular program, they just cut its bank account. The funding could always grow back in future years.

“To make the level of cuts that are significant, it is very, very hard to do it out of a small section of the budget,” Schumer said in an interview, referring to the discretionary funding. “If you try to sort of squeeze all of it into a small portion of the budget, you’re going to cut muscle and not just fat.”

But Republicans haven’t agreed yet. They appear less favorable toward using these kind of cuts than Democrats: If Congress kills a program, then it stays dead.

Talk to Hill staff about this issue and you’ll start to hear things like, “We’ve got a $2 billion chimp,” or “There’s a difference between the chimps that they have put on the table and the chimps that we have put on the table.”

They might also use the word “chimped” as a verb: “We chimped a billion dollars of farm-bill money last year.”

They don’t laugh.

Here, you glimpse the true power of the United States Congress. With the proper application of budget rhetoric, it can even manage to take the funny out of monkeys.

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