It was almost done.
After an hour-and-a-half of debate last week on reforming the way Congress budgets billions of dollars every year, Sen. Michael Enzi refused to call a vote on his bill. Most of the members of the panel were present except for those also on the Judiciary Committee, who were at the White House basking in their effort with President Trump to remake the federal judiciary.
So Enzi, the retiring chairman of the Budget Committee, reconvened his committee mere minutes later in an ornate room steps away from the Senate chamber to do what hadn’t been done since 1990: advance legislation to the floor that would upend the congressional budget process.
With controversial judicial nominees and stalled appropriations bills dominating the Senate floor, Enzi and Democratic cosponsor Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse are on a quest to tackle a less polarizing question. Few favor the current process by which Congress doles out dollars every year as lawmakers frequently blow deadlines. As Enzi’s panel was passing the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act, the U.S. government’s discretionary spending was operating on a stopgap resolution set to expire next week, less than a year after the longest shutdown in U.S. history.
But with every other issue facing Washington right now, can it tackle a problem both parties acknowledge exists? Budget reformers are cautiously optimistic about Enzi’s proposal becoming law but recognize the steep hurdles it faces on Capitol Hill.
“It’s very difficult to do budget reform,” said former Republican Budget Chairman Judd Gregg. “Mike Enzi’s probably one of the few people who could do it because he’s well-liked on both sides of the aisle.”
Enzi’s bill would pivot the budget process to a two-year cycle, granting appropriators who would still work on an annual schedule more time with top-line numbers as they fund the government.
Supporters argue it would also lessen the chance of default on the government’s loans by attaching the debt limit to the budget resolution, control the growth of the national debt by prioritizing long-term fiscal targets, and increase input from the Congressional Budget Office in the budgeting process.
“There are some significant changes in there,” Enzi told reporters after the bill’s advancement. “They aren't all of the changes that need to be done. But they should be enough changes there that it will make very noticeable what needs to be done next.”
Previous efforts to fix the federal budget progress or address the rising $23 trillion national debt have fallen flat. A joint select committee on budget reform last year failed to produce any recommendations.
But congressional aides say Enzi reached out to Democrats early, sharing draft text this summer with members around the same time that lawmakers were eliminating mandatory budget caps and holding hearings on the bill’s core principles. His effort so far boasts five cosponsors from the Democratic caucus as he whips support for a potential floor vote.
“I think he deserves a lot of credit, and I think he really took this seriously,” said Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert Bixby, whose fiscal policy organization supports the bill. “It would be very easy to write a partisan bill and ram it through, and I think taking the time to work—this is the way the Senate used to work.”
More Democrats would need to join in with the entirety of the Republican conference to surmount a filibuster. Without bipartisan support, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to dedicate valuable floor time to the bill.
“We’ve been talking about it,” McConnell told National Journal ahead of the bill’s introduction late last month. “Mike has done a lot of good work on that.”
Other Republican leaders charged with doling out discretionary spending are similarly supportive, with Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley cosponsoring the bill and Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby embracing at least one key goal.
“I like biennial budgeting,” Shelby said, “but until we rein in entitlements—and it’s going to take a bipartisan supermajority to do that—we’re not getting [anywhere] on budgets and saving money.”
The measure’s potential impact on social programs is a sticking point for Democrats. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the ranking member of the Budget Committee and a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, missed the bill’s markup.
But he and other senior Democrats on the panel, including Sens. Ron Wyden, Patty Murray, and Debbie Stabenow, oppose a key provision that would force Congress to use budget reconciliation, as it did to overhaul federal tax law in 2017, to cut spending or raise revenue during election years to meet deficit reduction goals. An effort to strike the provision failed in committee, with the bill’s supporters in both parties outgunning Democrats.
"Though this bill has some positive aspects, at its core is the creation of a new, expansive 'budget reconciliation' process that could be used by Republicans to unilaterally cut programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and nutrition assistance—all supposedly to reduce the deficit,” Sanders said in a statement last week.
The bipartisan alliance holding the bill is already tenuous. Whitehouse has said he would pull support from the bill if it comes to the floor outside of “regular order.” He’s hoping for an open hearing and floor debate on the bill’s merits in order to garner more support from his caucus.
“We’ll continue to pursue a hearing,” Whitehouse said in a brief interview last week, “because I think it would be helpful for the bill if more of the members who expressed concerns about it had had a chance, with the bill in front of them, to have experts talk through the process and either confirm the concerns that they have about the way the bill is written or allay those concerns.”
Obstacles also exist in the House, where there’s no companion legislation to get it through the Democratic majority, but some Republican support. Budget Chairman John Yarmuth in a statement praised Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s successful amendment with reporting requirements for the executive branch on its disbursement of congressional appropriations. But the Kentucky Democrat added that Enzi’s bill still contains unspecified “troubling provisions.”
“We need to be unified and focused on defending Congress’s power of the purse, which is under direct assault from the Trump Administration,” Yarmuth said through a spokesperson.
The time crunch to get bills passed will only intensify in 2020, when the Senate will potentially be bogged down by an impeachment trial, other legislative priorities, and federal elections.
“I do not think that deficit, debt, or budget process is going to be front and center anytime soon with all the things that are going on,” Maya MacGuineas, the president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told reporters last month. “I will say, [the] budget process has a lot of appeal because you can actually make incredible changes with it without doing anything that looks that hard.”
And Enzi’s own time on the Hill is limited. He is not seeking reelection next year, his final and fourth term in the Senate coinciding with the mandatory end to his six-year height as chairman of the budget committee.
“I hope it's not my last big push of my committee chairmanship or my time in the Senate,” Enzi said. “But it's an essential one. I've been working on this for years.”