The Budget Control Act (BCA) is the result of negotiations between the President and Congress held in response to the federal government having nearly reached its borrowing capacity.
The BCA authorized increases in the debt limit of at least $2.1 trillion dollars (and up to $2.4 trillion under certain conditions), subject to a disapproval process that would likely require securing the support of two-thirds of each chamber to prevent a debt limit increase. It established caps on the amount of money that could be spent through the annual appropriations process for the next 10 years, which the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates will reduce federal spending by $917 billion. The BCA also created a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that is instructed to develop a bill to reduce the federal deficit by at least another $1.5 trillion over the 10 year period ending in FY2021.
The legislation resulting from the joint committee recommendations can be considered under special procedures that prevent amendment and limit debate in both chambers. These procedures could have a significant impact in the Senate because they allow the bill to advance with simple majority support; under regular Senate procedures it can be necessary to obtain agreement among at least three-fifths of the Senate (normally 60 Senators) to advance consideration of legislation.
If a joint committee proposal cutting the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion is not enacted by January 15, 2012, then the BCA established an automatic spending reduction process that includes sequestration (the cancellation of budgetary resources). The process presumably is intended to encourage agreement on deficit reduction, either by enacting the joint committee legislation by early 2012, or possibly by enacting other legislation (presumably through existing congressional procedures) by the beginning of 2013, when the automatic process would make reductions. If the enacted bill cuts the deficit by more than $1.2 trillion, an additional increase in the debt limit becomes available in the amount of the excess, up to $0.3 trillion.
The Budget Control Act has two additional elements. First, it directs that the House and Senate must each vote on a proposal to amend the Constitution to require that the budget of the federal government be balanced. The BCA does not alter the procedures for taking up such a measure in the Senate, and therefore the Senate might not be able to vote on passage of a constitutional amendment unless the support of 60 Senators can be secured to begin consideration. The only procedural consequence of not voting specified in the BCA is that, if Congress does not approve a constitutional amendment, the second of two conditions under which the act would permit an additional increase of $0.3 trillion in the debt ceiling, will not be available.
Second, the BCA also makes changes to the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (DL) program and the Federal Pell Grant program, two federal student aid programs authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA; P.L. 89-329). Effective July 1, 2012, the BCA eliminates the availability of Subsidized Stafford Loans to graduate and professional students and eliminates all but one type of repayment incentives on future DL program loans. CBO estimates these changes would reduce direct spending by $21.6 billion over the FY2012- FY2021 period. Approximately $17 billion of the $21.6 billion in estimated savings from the changes in the DL program would be directed to the Pell Grant program for future general use in FY2012 and FY2013.