Chairman Enzi Vows a Bipartisan Budget Process Overhaul

Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi on Wednesday refrained from specifying what changes to the federal budget process could be drafted into an overhaul bill he hopes to release in May.

But he said he plans to produce a proposal that would garner support from committee Democrats and that President Barack Obama would be willing to sign before the end of the year, an ambitious timetable.

“The main focus is coming up with a budget that is transparent and enforceable, which we don’t have now. And there has to be some way to inject the president into the process earlier,” said Enzi, who held a Senate Budget Committee hearing Wednesday on a possible overhaul. He said that he wants to approach changing the budget process “step-by-step,” with the committee only taking on the changes it can get done before the presidential election in November.

When asked about the possibility a bill would include moving from an annual budget and appropriations process to one every two years, Enzi said he viewed that change as “absolutely essential” and cited previous bills he’s introduced to do just that.

“In mine, we split the 12 [appropriations] bills into two segments and we’d do the six that are the most difficult right after an election and the easy ones just before an election,” he said. “My bill also calls for defense to be done every year.”

In the off years, he said, there could be a small bill to address any changes in spending that may be needed.

In the past, Appropriations Committee members have been opposed to such a change, but Enzi said splitting off the «appropriations bills into different years could help assuage criticism.

“One of the reasons appropriators say they don’t want biennial budgeting is that no one thinks oversight is much fun, and their in-between years would be oversight, but under my plan where we do six each year that gives them something to do each year,” Enzi said.

Democratic Priorities

Sen. Patty Murray, who sits on the Budget Committee but is also chairwoman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee and is a member of the Democratic leadership, noted there are areas where Enzi would not get Democratic support.

“I’m going to be very focused on making sure we don’t make changes that actually hurt the ability to invest in nondefense priorities or [don't] call on the wealthiest Americans or largest corporations to pay their fair share,” Murray said.

“I believe that even though our two-year budget deals show how multi-year budgets could work to encourage bipartisan agreements and avoid artificial crisis and increase certainty in policy making, we should not set aside the important oversight role that Congress does play through the annual appropriations process," said Murray, the co-author of the 2013 two-year budget deal (PL 113-67). "And the ability of Congress to use the power of the purse each year to examine and to challenge and to reassess the needs of our agencies and our programs."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who is filling in as the committee’s top Democrat while Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., campaigns for president, indicated that if the bill does not have bipartisan support from committee members, it will likely not make it past the Senate.

“If this committee does not produce something that is bipartisan, then game over,” Whitehouse said. “At that point you are just part of the partisan fighting here.”

If a bill would bring together members of the committee as Enzi intends to do, Whitehouse said, “that will be a very significant center of gravity for the Senate at large and that is something I think many of us would like to work on.”

By:  Jennifer Shutt, CQ Roll Call
Source: Congressional Quarterly