Broken Budget Blues? Senators Enzi, Whitehouse May Have A Remedy For That

You don’t need to be a legislative expert to know that the Congressional budget process is broken. Total public debt is $23 trillion and counting, which is the equivalent of more than 103 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), and the fiscal year (FY) 2019 federal budget deficit alone approached $1 trillion. Lawmakers have time and time again proven unwilling to make politically difficult but fiscally responsible decisions, all the while careening from budget crisis to budget crisis.

Enter two Senators intent on fixing a budget process that has led to record levels of debt and short-term decision-making. Last week, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) steered S. 2765, the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act of 2019, to Committee passage. The Committee noted S. 2765 is “the first [set of] bipartisan budget reforms approved by the Senate Budget Committee since 1990.” That is no small feat.

NTU applauds the Committee for this accomplishment, and thanks Chairman Enzi and Senator Whitehouse for having the courage to introduce reforms that we hope will encourage lawmakers to tackle the debt crisis and leave future generations of taxpayers better off than the dismal status quo.

How will the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act of 2019 improve on the status quo? Here are a few promising components of this expansive legislation:

  • A move toward biennial budgeting: S. 2765 would instruct Congress to pass a two-year budget resolution in the first year of a new session, which will inspire Members to think more about the impact their decisions have on annual deficits and the climbing national debt. The appropriations process would still be annual, but the topline figures set by the budget resolution would be biennial. S. 2765 also creates a special reconciliation process in case the federal government is failing to meet certain debt-to-GDP targets one year into the two-year resolution (more on that below).

  • Debt-to-GDP targets: Budget resolutions would now have to include “a projected debt-to-GDP target for each year covered by the budget resolution” - an absolute necessity with debt now exceeding the nation’s annual economic output. During the second year of each resolution, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) would have to report on whether or not the federal government is meeting its debt-to-GDP targets. If the government is falling short, S. 2765 would trigger a reconciliation process that forces Congress to address those failures.

  • Special reconciliation process for deficit reduction: Under this special reconciliation process, the Senate Budget Committee (renamed the Committee on Fiscal Control and the Budget by S. 2765) would have to report a special resolution to the Senate that contains “(1) the total level of deficit reduction and the period during which is to be achieved and (2) reconciliation instructions to one or more Senate committees specifying the total amount of deficit reduction to be achieved through changes in laws within the jurisdiction of each such committee.” The Senate committees would then get to work achieving spending cuts or revenue increases that reduce the deficit, and submit them to the Committee on Fiscal Control and the Budget, which would then report the legislation to the full Senate. It is an unusual and welcome development to see legislation that creates this special process just for deficit reduction.

  • Transparency measures: Title V of S. 2765 makes a number of changes meant to make the budget process smoother and more transparent. Section 501 requires the Budget Committees in the House and Senate to “release, and make available to the public, scorekeeping reports tracking compliance with the budget.” Section 503 disallows so-called “global waivers” for surgical points of order. Currently, Senators “can make a single motion to waive all budget points of order that lie against a measure,” allowing one motion (if agreed upon) to permit a piece of legislation that breaks several rules. This would ensure that each point of order is considered on its own merits.

Overall, the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act of 2019 is a positive step forward that we hope receives a full vote in the Senate. While process changes alone will not stop the runaway spending that has dug the nation into a $23-trillion hole, it’s a happy start that may cure the budget blues that have plagued Washington, D.C. for too long.

By:  Andrew Lautz