This past week, Congress held another hearing on budget reform. Two former budget committee chairmen, Leon Panetta and David Obey, both testified. They lamented the current state of congressional budgeting and identified aspects of the 1974 Budget Act that discourage fiscally responsible and timely annual budgeting.
Readers might be tempted to shrug this off as a non-event. “Elected officials complain about the budget, but never do anything,” is a common sentiment. But there are reasons to believe that we might actually get budget reform this year.
Importantly, virtually everyone in Congress agrees the budget process is broken. Indeed, lawmakers began complaining about it as early as the 1980s, and over the years, have tried various fixes (such as Gramm-Rudman-Hollings).
Congressional recognition of the problem has expanded with each passing year, as deficits have skyrocketed and the budget process itself has broken down. Consider: By law, the House and Senate are supposed to approve a spending blueprint for the year (a budget resolution), and then pass a dozen individual spending bills that comport with the blueprint. However, Congress has agreed upon budget resolutions only three of five times in the past five years, and completed only one of the 60 appropriations acts on time. Viewed over the past decades, the picture is even worse: five of 10 budget resolutions finalized and five of 120 spending bills completed on time.
This leads us to the second factor that encourages budget process reform: Legislators hate what the current system does to them. They dislike voting on a budget resolution that is a purely partisan messaging document, and subsequently having their votes used against them in their re-election campaigns. Congressmen also loathe being forced to vote on spending bills that are thousands of pages long, crafted in back rooms without their input, and placed before them mere days or even hours before a government shutdown.
For these reasons, over the past few years, both chambers’ budget committees have been looking closely at budget reform options. This spring, Congress took an important step by creating the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, with 16 members (eight from the Senate and eight from the House).
What is especially interesting about this committee’s hearings is that they have not devolved into partisan spectacles. Rather, they have been thoughtful examinations of the nature of the problem. Partly this is because the members serving on the joint select committee are serious about budget reform (e.g., Sen. David Perdue, R-GA, and Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-WA). But it is also partly because its co-chairs (Rep. Steve Womack, R-AR, and Rep. Nita Lowey, D-NY) have set a serious tone and diligent work agenda. The committee has held five public hearings already — including the aforementioned one where former Chairmen Panetta and Obey testified — along with many informal consultations with budget experts.
The hearings also have revealed a surprising level of agreement on possible paths forward. Members on both sides of the aisle have expressed interest in changing the calendar for budgeting, mending the balkanized committee jurisdiction, and eliminating the current debt-ceiling policy. Multiple members have also expressed interest in biennial budgeting and in establishing strong incentives for legislators to budget in a timely manner, including consequences for the failure to do so.
It should not go unnoticed that various groups from across the political spectrum have been helping Congress to tackle budget reform. They include the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the National Taxpayers Union, the Brookings Institution, the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, and the Heritage Foundation — to name just a handful. The Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group, which I co-chair, has also helped to produce research and events on budgeting and appropriations.
The joint committee will deliver its report in late autumn. The timing could prove perfect, as the November elections will have concluded, and legislators may feel more free than usual to vote their consciences. Lame-duck sessions often produce surprising results and with sufficient encouragement from us all, Congress might just enact budget reform before breaking for the December holidays.
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