A first step toward budget process reform

The problems with budgeting in the United States are so well-established that one might say the dysfunction has become a feature, not a bug. Legislators do not budget according to any rules — at least not since the mid-1990s.

The way the current process is supposed to work – budget, then authorize then appropriate – was established in the 1974 Budget Act, legislation that arose out of a standoff between President Nixon and Congress over the former’s overuse of impoundment power to withhold funds. While the Act’s changes promoted some fiscal responsibility in the years immediately following its passage, the deliberative process imagined by its authors has come to fruition only four times since it became law.

Instead, Congress has replaced an overbearing president with overbearing dysfunction in which leadership hammers out must-pass packages and presents them to Congress at the last minute with an impossible choice: Vote to approve or vote to shut down the government.

It is little secret what happens in most cases. The latest budget agreement, a big-spending, wasteful bonanza that met nearly universal opposition, still passed with support from politicians who have promised countless times to do better (Mike Enzi, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, notably voted Nay). If fiscal hawks cannot even defeat wasteful boondoggles under these conditions, the idea of accomplishing desperately needed spending reform is a vanishing hope indeed.

Last year, Congress created the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform but was not able to come together and pass even the modest set of reforms it agreed upon. A casual observer would be forgiven for assuming budget process reform had died. But this year the Senate Budget Committee has other plans. Heading into August recess, Chairman Enzi (R-WY) dropped a substantial discussion draft of ideas for another round of process reform. And there’s a lot to like.

For one, the framework would strengthen the budget resolution, which currently functions too much like a toothless messaging document instead of a real plan. Under Enzi’s framework, the resolution would automatically establish a deficit-GDP target and a deficit-reducing reconciliation bill, among other changes. For another, it would improve the way in which the Congressional Budget Office measures the budgetary impact of legislation and sets its baseline, giving citizens and legislators alike a more realistic view of long-term spending implications. It also aims to increase the meaningful involvement of legislative committees.

Of course, there are a few notes of caution, such as with the proposed establishment of a biennial (or two-year) budgeting cycle. I and others have previously expressed concern that such an arrangement could simply make it easier for profligate politicians to spend more if it is not paired with structural spending restraint, but other changes proposed in the chairman’s plan perhaps accomplish this goal.

As it stands, Enzi’s plan is still in its very earliest stages. Once Congress returns from recess, the real work will begin to see whether progress on this often un-sexiest of issues can be made, and whether things will go in the right direction. With a divided Congress and shrinking cadre of fiscal hawks, this promises to be no easy task.

But now more than ever, it is critical that lawmakers stop kicking the can down the road and take their responsibility to budget seriously. With bills coming due and major programs facing insolvency within our lifetimes, there is no excuse for continuing to pass enormous, last-minute packages that keep the government chugging along full-speed-ahead to fiscal ruin.

With the discretionary spending caps put in place by the Budget Control Act coming to an end in just two years, many current members have never served in an environment without even that modest constraint.

What comes next? Only time will tell, but Enzi’s plan promises first steps toward putting the brakes on the current runaway budgetary train. Fiscal conservatives from all camps should be pleased to see progress on this critical task.

Jonathan Bydlak is a fiscal policy expert and the founder and president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He also spearheads SpendingTracker.org.

Source: The Hill