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Flurry of Budget Process Reforms Blanket House

A flurry of budget process reform bills recently blanketed the House, creating a wonky winter wonderland.

The perfect storm of fiscal fixes was precipitated by press releases from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) commemorating the thousandth day since the Senate last adopted a Congressional budget resolution back on April 29, 2009.

The House Budget Committee approved three budget process bills Jan. 24 (day 1,000). That same week, the House Rules Committee approved a fourth bill and held a hearing on a fifth measure that would establish a biennial budget process. (This column does not cover an expedited, line-item veto/rescission bill that was separately reported and has a longer track record.)

While the reform spurt drew little attention outside the Beltway, it did pose a conundrum to those inside: Why would the Senate act on a series of House-passed budget reform bills when its reflexive reaction to budget reform is inaction? As the old saw goes, the Senate is the place where House bills go to die, and that has been especially true of House-passed budget reforms.

The House reform-fest therefore must be prompted by one of two assumptions: A) The process reforms are such an obvious solution to the Senate’s fiscal failings that the chamber will enthusiastically embrace them; or B) the House’s presumptuous prescriptions will anger and shame the Senate into forcefully demonstrating that the existing process can work just fine.

Of course, a third possibility is that neither assumption is correct and that we are back to our conundrum of an irrepressible force meeting an immovable object. In that case, House Republicans will at least have made a political statement that they are not the sole source of Congressional dysfunction, thereby hoping to partially inoculate themselves against angry voter reprisals in the fall.

To determine exactly what’s going on, we should briefly review the reform proposals and how they were processed. The four bills were introduced Dec. 7 by four Budget Committee Republicans (with an additional six Republican budget reform bills waiting in the wings).

The three bills reported by the Budget Committee would: 1) change the way in which the budget baseline for projected spending is calculated by removing the assumption that discretionary spending will grow by the inflation rate and by assuming the extension of expiring programs and taxes; 2) require the Congressional Budget Office to prepare a supplementary cost estimate that provides a macroeconomic effect analysis (dynamic scoring) for every major bill (supply-siders of the world, unite!); and 3) more accurately measure the costs of federal credit programs by accounting for them on a fair value basis, putting them on par with other federal spending. The bill approved by the Rules Committee would convert the concurrent resolution on the budget to a joint resolution requiring the president’s signature.

The Budget Committee’s Jan. 24 markup was its first meeting of the second session (the Rules Committee approved its bill the previous day). No hearings had been held on any of the four bills — a good measure of just how serious any legislative effort is. Historically, on something as important as making substantial changes in the Congressional Budget Act, hearings have been held to determine how the various pieces fit and how they will alter existing government programs, processes and structures.

While each bill has some merit, there is no indication that individually or collectively they will relieve current bottle-necks to timely action on the Congressional budget or appropriations measures. If anything, the joint budget resolution could prolong the time it takes on both processes by injecting the president into negotiations on budget resolution numbers — something that undermines an original purpose of the Budget Act, which was to restore Congress’ primacy over the purse strings.

The most meritorious bill awaiting action is a biennial budgeting bill sponsored by Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.). It would put budget resolutions and appropriations bills on two-year cycles, freeing up one session each Congress for more oversight and policy authorizations. The House rejected Dreier’s proposal a few years ago, but it is certainly worth revisiting.

The short turnaround time on the four budget reform bills, with no hearings, no bipartisan co-sponsors and the public relations peg to “day 1,000” of Senate inaction leads one to conclude that this was little more than a political swipe at the budget-challenged Senate.

However, it was also a useful training exercise for Budget Committee reform bill sponsors to better learn the process and become more engaged Members (something other committee chairmen might want to emulate). Perhaps coincidentally it has started a larger conversation about the need for significant budget process reform. That larger effort will require a great deal more contemplation, coordination and deliberation.

Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center, and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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