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As Congress and the White House teeter on the edge of compromise for an overdue, additional emergency relief package, the coronavirus has claimed over 220,000 lives and left jobless numbers hovering around 12 million, well above their pre-pandemic levels. But as Caitlin Emma points out in Politico, the relief package is just part of an enormous budget agenda facing Congress. She writes:

“Congress is already heading into a big budget year, regardless of the outcome on Election Day. After a decade of enduring strict budget caps and operating under the threat of automatic spending cuts, lawmakers face no overall limits on defense and non-defense discretionary spending for fiscal 2022. Washington will also have to again grapple with raising the debt limit on federal borrowing next summer in order to stave off calamity.”

This “new budget territory,” as Emma calls it, offers a rare opportunity to prioritize children. For example, the temporary continuing resolution (CR) funding the federal government expires on December 11, 2020, and action will be required to avoid a government shutdown. The election outcome likely will have a huge impact on how long Congress extends the CR deadline into next year or if it tackles some appropriations bills sooner, such as the Labor-HHS-Education bill, which provides more than 70% of annual spending for children’s programs and services.

As Emma points out, FY2022 offers a clean slate as the spending limits set out by the 2011 Budget Control Act sunset after FY2021. Depending on the election results, Congress also may decide to use a reconciliation package — which requires a simple majority vote for passage — to pursue policy priorities such as health care, climate change, and infrastructure improvements, and of course, to revisit the lopsided provisions in the 2017 tax law, which favor the wealthy. The Republican majority used the reconciliation process to usher through the tax legislation. Democrats used it to pass the Affordable Care Act.

On top of all this, Congress will need to address the debt ceiling limit before its expiration next July and may even consider eliminating it at a time when budget hawks will be calling for austerity measures. All of these decisions could profoundly impact the well-being of our children as the dual public health and economic crises intensify their needs and compound existing disparities in our society.

Even before the pandemic, children regularly fell into the shadows during budget negotiations. On September 30, 2020, we released the 14th edition of our Children’s Budget book, presenting our analysis of more than 200 federally supported programs dedicated in part or entirely to children. Unfortunately, our analysis identifies a persistent and alarming trend: Children continue to receive a smaller and smaller share of federal spending.

In 2020, the share of federal spending on children hit just 7.48% — a decline of 9% from its FY2016 levels. For the record, children make up roughly one-quarter of our population. Under the president’s FY2021 request, investment in our children would drop to just 7.32% as it proposed harmful cuts and recommended eliminating or consolidating into block grants 59 different programs benefitting children.

Our investment in children overseas is not doing any better. The Children’s Budget 2020 marks the first time that we at First Focus on Children have analyzed federal spending on children from the international affairs budget, which spans seven entities including the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Our research finds that the dollars dedicated to aiding children globally reflects far less than 1% of our spending — a dismal 0.11 percent of the overall federal budget.

There are two legislative proposals introduced in the U.S. Senate sponsored by Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to help bring greater transparency to Congressional budget decisions. The Focus on Children Act (S.1780) and the Congressional Budget Act (S.1776) would authorize the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget, respectively, to regularly conduct a clear and full accounting of federal spending on children’s programs and services. These complementary bills would help policymakers and the public better understand and accurately evaluate how children are faring in critical, federal budget decisions.

So, as Congress and the president negotiate critically important budget decisions in the coming days, weeks, and months, we urge them to place children front and center to ensure kids are not left further behind. Our future depends on our children and budget decisions expose our leaders’ priorities for that future.

“We have a real opportunity to infuse equity and justice throughout our budget process,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) told Emma.

Let’s remember that this election season. Put kids first.