Top Senators Make A Case For A Better Budget Process

The Senate’s seeming inability to pass a budget is not due to party conflicts but the budget process itself, two top senators said during a panel discussion at the Peterson Foundation 2016 Fiscal Summit in Washington, D.C. Wednesday.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi of Wyoming said the process isn’t substantive and is often used for political purposes. He cited how the upper chamber had a budget last year, managed to pass 11 of the twelve spending bills, yet still ultimately ended up with an omnibus that cost an additional $80 billion.

“It’s a broken process and we need to fix it, and I think that’s why we are working together – to see some way that we can eliminate those voteramas that go on for hours and hours and are just designed to embarrass each side,” Enzi said. “That doesn’t result in any kind of a conclusion that actually sets any priorities, figures out where we are going to go or has any specificity that will actually happen.”

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse  of Rhode Island noted the Budget Act passed in 1974 allowed for the controlling party to push through a budget with a simple majority, but also allowed for the minority to have an unlimited number of amendments. This, he says, led to nothing but lawmakers throwing “potshots” at each other from across the aisle.

“The process that is supposed to be the sort of the high point of  congressional responsibility to limit the debt of the country and set a spending and revenue path for it turns into a comedy of mutual insults and demeaning behavior,” he said, adding the first step would be making the process less disparaging. “If we can get beyond that, then it would be nice to have it be less irrelevant to the Senate, that would be stage two – and if we can really pull something off, then step three would be to make it more effective at achieving the intended goals of a Budget Committee.”

According to Whitehouse, the power has shifted from the Budget Committee to the Appropriations Committee and congressional leadership that negotiates with the president on mega-deals when the budget process isn’t completed.

Enzi said one of the major issues is that the president’s budget, the Budget Committee’s budget, the appropriators’ budget and the authorizing committee’s budget are all different. This means there is no way to trace the money. He advocated to switching to a biennial budget, which he says would save an estimated 5 percent.

Enzi also said he’d like to see the president involved in the process earlier on. Presidents from both parties, he added, use holding up the spending process to their advantage by leveraging the threat of a government shutdown to get what they want.

Whitehouse agreed it would be optimal to avoid an omnibus, which gives lawmakers around “four hours to decide,” only to later find things they wouldn’t have agreed to.

By changing to a biennial budget, Enzi said agencies would know in advance what they can spend, limiting them from rushing to spend the previous year’s budget – saving 5 percent – ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline.

Whitehouse said the option is on the table, but “the devil is in the details,” adding there are no repercussions for appropriators who blow through the budget.

According to Enzi, by changing the process – which the Appropriations Committee has been hesitant on – lawmakers would be able to focus on solving major issues like the debt, which is quickly approaching $20 trillion.

He warned the interest on the debt is becoming a major problem and the committee has no say in 70 percent of spending as it is mandatory. He added if they continue spending the entire $1 trillion on interest, there will be attempts to reach into Social Security or similar entitlement programs.

“I used to say we are stealing from our grandkids, now we’ve stolen so much money we’re stealing from our kids and the big shock we are going to have in a few years is we are going to be stealing from ourselves,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out ways through the budget process to stop piling on the debt.”

The lawmakers agreed a partisan budget is not the way to go and they are confident there is a mechanism to streamline the process.

By:  Juliwegrace Brufke