Enzi takes on bipartisan budget reform in Congress

Threatened federal government shutdowns. Spending bills that exceed limits negotiated by Congress. Concocted emergencies to justify loans. And no way for the public to follow the money.

These are all dysfunctions of the current budgeting and spending process in Washington, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi says. And the Republican, who leads the Senate Budget Committee, is working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reform the process.

“We have a broken budget process," Wyoming's senior U.S. senator said. "Congress is kind of like a binge eater who is ready to start a diet right after dessert."

If successful, budget reform could be Enzi’s legacy in the U.S. Senate, where he has served for 19 years. But its success is hardly certain.

“I would say there’s widespread agreement among people who observe the process that it’s really not working the way it’s supposed to work,” said Joseph Cordes, professor of economics and public policy at George Washington University. “The question is how to change that.”

Enzi himself acknowledged it will be politically difficult to persuade his congressional colleagues to adopt the changes.

It's also unknown whether he will continue to lead the Senate Budget Committee in January. Democrats may take control of the Senate. If that happens, a Democrat would become chairman.

“Then I become the most senior Republican and I play defense,” Enzi said during a telephone interview. “I’ll continue to push for getting a budget that will actually work. We are definitely in a crisis mode. People don’t realize it yet.”

Budget basics

In Congress, the budget is a blueprint that outlines spending priorities for discretionary money. But no one has to follow it.

The budget doesn’t carry the force of law, as the president doesn’t sign it. Twelve spending bills, also known as appropriations bills, are supposed to fall within the guidelines established by the budget.

But that has happened rarely since 1974, when Congress adopted the modern budgeting and spending process, said Cordes, of George Washington University.

Enzi became chairman of the Senate Budget Committee when Republicans took control of the Senate in 2015. It was the first time an accountant held the position.

That year, Congress passed a joint balanced budget, the first time in a decade. Then Congress proceeded to pass appropriations bills that spent more money than the budget recommended.

This year, no budget resolution was passed because Congress, in approving a spending bill in 2015, enacted a process in which the Senate Appropriations Committee could begin its annual spending bills without Congress having to pass another budget for 2016. 

“It has always been a political document,” Cordes said about the budget. “In some sense it’s become more political than it even was before, in the last couple of years. I think mainly because the partisan divides have gotten so much sharper in both houses.”

This week, Congress has been under pressure to enact a continuing resolution that, Enzi said, would essentially fund government for the fiscal year that begins Saturday, at the same levels as this year, plus inflation. The budget is nearly $1.1 trillion. Additions to the budget include money to combat the Zika virus.


Enzi is eyeing some reforms that date back to his time in the Wyoming Legislature, such as a proposal to change the federal government to two-year budget cycles. The result, he said, would be colleagues voting on controversial spending bills during non-election years and less controversial appropriations bills during election years. The would lead to better decision-making, he said.

Other proposals have been brought forward by Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee, including from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, who is concerned about the debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio, Enzi said.

Enzi also invited two former committee chairmen to share thoughts -- Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

“I’ve been working these solutions in a bipartisan way,” Enzi said. “I’ve had a whole series of hearings to find out how it’s done in other countries and states.”

Some of the proposals are individual bills, such as the two-year budget cycle measure. Others will be wrapped up in one bill, which has yet to be introduced.

Enzi said he had hoped the reforms would already have passed. But he said the presidential election has caused delays. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, is the ranking member of the committee. He’s been wrapped up in campaigning for himself and then Clinton.

Ultimately, budget reform is the best way to reduce the country's nearly $20 trillion debt, Enzi said.

“I’ll continue to sound the clarion call that we're in trouble,” he said.

By:  Laura Hancock
Source: Casper Star-Tribune