Considering the cacophony coming out of the Capitol, it would be excusable to have not heard about an important bipartisan piece of legislation moving forward. But this week the Senate Committee on the Budget put its stamp of approval on the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Act. Co-sponsored by Senate Budget Committee Chair Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) along with more than a dozen of their colleagues from both parties, this bill is the first bipartisan budget process reform bill in nearly 30 years. And it’s important.
The standard “normal” budget process is broken. In short the “federal budget” is supposed to be a concurrent resolution between the House and Senate, debated and agreed to annually, that guides federal spending decisions. The annual budget process entered its current disjointed form with the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Since then Congress has successfully followed the process and enacted all the spending bills funding government on time precisely four times in the law’s 40+ years of existence. Often the House and Senate don’t even agree on an underlying budget. This contributes to the prevalence of last-minute budget deals, massive omnibus spending bills, and shutdown threats.
There are no silver bullets to solve the crisis, and process reforms can’t fix partisanship, but this bill is a key step forward. The technical changes are promising. The bill would create a biennial budget while retaining annual appropriations bills. It seeks better buy-in from other legislative leaders by making chairs and ranking members of spending and taxing committees ex officio members, and sets debt-to-GDP targets in the budget resolution.
But wait – there’s more!
There’s a special budget reconciliation process that’s triggered if the debt-to-GDP targets are not met. There’s also a new budget pathway for budgets that garner significant bipartisan support (60 votes with at least 15 coming from the minority) would be able to set a deficit reduction glide path that includes discretionary spending, revenue levels, tax expenditures, and health care.
We’d buy that – but wait – there’s more!
There’s a provision that with adoption of the budget resolution, legislation is sent to the President that conforms the debt limit with the just agreed upon spending levels. Goodbye debt limit brinksmanship. Importantly, the Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office (Congress’ budget scoring and program analysis agencies) would be directed to regularly update Congress in ways that increase transparency and accountability. They’d report on projected interest costs for any additional federal debt caused by authorizing, revenue (tax cut) or emergency spending. They also would create and regularly review portfolios of federal spending to help guide lawmaker decision making. Finally, it would largely dispose of the much-derided vote-a-rama that is more about partisan gotcha votes to score points, than about legislating.
Let’s be clear, in the end no amount of process reforms will matter if lawmakers don’t work together to do their job of legislating. As Morpheus tells Neo in the Matrix: “Some rules can be bent, others can broken.”
While not a budget resolution, there’s a great example of budget chicanery going on right now. The FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act was the 2015 highway-transit authorization. It included a rescission of $7.6 billion in 2020 to reduce the legislation’s price tag – at least on paper. Oh 2020 seemed so far away in 2015, now it is practically upon us. In fact in fiscal year terms, we’re already more than a month into it. Anyway, this rescission in contract authority will hit states hard, reducing their funding as much as 30 percent so lawmakers are trying to find a way to wiggle out of it. The ironic thing in all of this is that since contract authority is viewed to be discretionary spending (subject to Congressional decision-making as opposed to automatic) CBO scores it as zero outlays. It’s pretty clear this gimmick will be undone, but cost of it will not.
This brings us back to the beginning. There are no silver bullets to fix the nation’s budget and scorekeeping process. There are ways to make them more accurate, including accrual accounting to take in all future liabilities, but you have to start somewhere. The Senate Committee on the Budget has started that process. Oh wait, the new name under the bill would be Senate Committee on Fiscal Control and the Budget. We like that – more deliberate and under control. Sens. Enzi and Whitehouse and their merry bipartisan band of fellow Senators are to be congratulated for tackling the broken budget process.