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Change the Budget Process? Give Us All a Break

You would think that the deficit and national debt that many in Congress keep telling us are way too big would prompt a serious discussion about what should be done that has at least some prospect of actually succeeding.

But what instead is being proposed as salvation from our devil-sent combination of fiscal afflictions and budget transgressions? Apparently, all we have to do to be delivered is to change the Congressional budget process.

And for some reason, putting the country on the path to economic good health and righteousness once again includes the perennially proposed change from a one- to a two-year federal budget, even though that has never been proved to have any value whatsoever and could actually make things much worse.

That’s not to say this is unexpected. Blaming the process is a mainstay of the budget debate in Washington, D.C. Congress typically proposes to do something about the budget process when it can’t or won’t do anything about spending and revenues. This has been observed so often over the years that it’s now a basic fact of life among budget insiders.

So it’s not at all surprising that, given Congress’ continuing inability to agree on the deficit reduction proposal so many say is needed, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) last week pushed his committee to approve legislation that would change the budget process.

It was, however, very disappointing.

It was also just the latest sign that there’s going to be little progress on the federal budget this year.

I’m hardly the first person to insist that changing the budget process is just a cover for not dealing with the real issues. Although it’s repeated often, it’s been more than a quarter-century since Congressional Budget Office Director Rudolph Penner provided one of the most famous quotes in federal budget history when he said that the budget process is not the problem; the problem is the problem. Penner also told a House Rules subcommittee reviewing the budget process in 1984: “A process, no matter how well designed, cannot make difficult problems easy.”

The truth is that even if there was no process change at all, let alone the changes Ryan thinks are needed, Congress already has all the power and procedures it needs to deal with the budget. In fact, the process barely matters.

As we’ve learned repeatedly from the debates of the past few decades when the House, Senate and White House didn’t implement some part of the supposedly required budget procedures, no rules force Members of Congress or the president to cut spending or increase revenues if they don’t want to do so.

That’s why having joint instead of concurrent budget resolutions, requiring that the CBO provide dynamic scoring cost estimates for proposals, and changing the way baselines are calculated, all of which are required by the legislation approved by the House Budget Committee last week, won’t make a dime’s (let alone a trillion dollars’) worth of difference.

But another proposed change that Ryan and others are pushing — biennial budgeting — is the biggest fraud of all.

Voting on a budget every two years instead of annually just means that Members of Congress only have to go on record every other year on the overall deficit and debt. That means less, rather than more, accountability. It also means less transparency and responsibility if the ultimate result is that votes on the budget can be avoided more often before the next election.

Biennial budgeting also makes little sense because of how unlikely it is that a two-year budget will be based on an accurate assessment of the economy over the period it will be in place. With a biennial budget, White House economic forecasts and cost estimates would be completed 10 months before the first of the two fiscal years covered in the budget and almost two full years before the second. Other than pure luck, there’s no way any of the forecasts, projections and estimates in the second year would be close to correct.

Biennial budget supporters say that two-year budgets and appropriations could always be revised. But there’s no point of doing two-year budgets and spending bills if annual (or more frequent) updates are going to be needed anyway. That’s budgeting by supplemental appropriation and is a terrible idea.

The long-held view that two-year budgeting will allow Congress to do more oversight of existing programs is nonsense. Few of the authorization committees that do oversight currently have budget-related responsibilities that prevent them from reviewing the agencies and departments within their jurisdiction.

They just don’t do it. The budget process is not what’s stopping the committees now; a two-year process won’t make it more likely that they will do more (or any) in the future.

Using budget process changes to implement an actual agreement on spending and revenues would make a great deal of sense. In fact, the budget process revisions of the past have only been successful when they implemented that type of political consensus.

But without that consensus, saying that changing the budget process will solve our fiscal woes is the federal budget equivalent of telling an alcoholic that all he or she has to do to deal with the disease is take a different route home so they don’t walk past the bar every day.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”