Budget chairman proposes bipartisan overhaul of congressional budget process

By:  Tom Howell Jr.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi on Wednesday will propose the first bipartisan overhaul of Congress‘ budget process in four decades, saying lawmakers should outline two years of spending at a time and then stick to their plans.

The Wyoming Republican hopes to put an end to the last-minute deadline showdowns that have plagued Capitol Hill over the last six years by forcing the Senate to debate spending bills soon after the annual budget is finished.

“Instead of a functioning appropriations process, Congress has resorted to massive omnibus appropriations bills and continuing resolutions that carry over spending from the previous year,” he says in a summary of his plan obtained by The Washington Times.

He said it needs to be easier to write the budget and harder to break it once it’s finished. And he said Congress should be forced to spend more time working on the spending bills to carry out the budget, as a way of making the document matter.

Under current rules, Congress is supposed to complete a budget by April 15 each year, and the spending committees then use that broad blueprint to write 12 appropriations bills doling out the money by Sept. 30.

In reality, Congress never meets either deadline.

Lawmakers instead regularly pass short-term stopgap bills to keep the government open, limping along until they can agree on massive year-end spending packages that please neither side. Over the last 40 years, Congress approved some 173 stopgap bills.

Other times Congress has failed altogether, sending the government into partial shutdowns.

Mr. Enzi believes changing the process can produce better results, and will formally outline his ideas in a speech early Wednesday on the Senate floor.

In his outline, he says the government is already operating on two-year budgets after massive debt agreements in 2011, 2013 and 2015. But he’d make it even easier to write a budget by limiting the number of amendments that can be considered on the Senate floor.

It’s also relatively easy to break the budget caps, with a 60-vote threshold. Mr. Enzi says small breaches should be easy, but the bigger the spending, the tougher it should be.

Really big budget breaches should require a two-thirds vote, he says — the equivalent of overturning a presidential veto.

Also, Mr. Enzi says the Senate should focus on the regular appropriations bills from the moment the budget resolution is adopted until Congress breaks for its August recess.

Any attempt to consider a non-appropriations measure during that period would require a two-thirds vote in theSenate.

Mr. Enzi also wants a new budget commission to update government accounting practices.

For instance, the commission could explore whether “dynamic scoring,” in which the economic impact of federal policies is taken into account by congressional scorekeepers, should be used to enforce budget agreements.

Committee aides expect Democrats to support rules that would limit the number of floor amendments allowed to budgets, though other aspects of the plan might be a tougher sell, for instance Democrats have balked at Republican demands to use dynamic scoring to count the economic ripple effect of tax cuts.

Sen. Angus King, Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he’s already on board with Mr. Enzi’s plan to budget for two years instead of just one.

“It gives you more time for oversight, and it’s ridiculous to do a one-year budget on an enterprise this big,” he said.