When the Deal Precedes the Bid, Time to Change the Rules?

With bipartisan agreement that the budget system is broken, the Hill sets in motion a serious overhaul debate

Boxes containing President Donald Trump’’s fiscal 2019 budget are unpacked by staff in the House Budget Committee hearing room on Monday morning. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Boxes containing President Donald Trump’’s fiscal 2019 budget are unpacked by staff in the House Budget Committee hearing room on Monday morning. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 14, 2018 at 5:05am

The latest unfeasible budget proposal is so two days ago. But a rewrite of the unsalvageable budget process may be unavoidable three seasons from now.

What the White House delivered to the Capitol on Monday were among the least consequential documents of the year. That’s because their fine-print aspirations of fiscal restraint were entirely theoretical. They had been rendered meaningless three days before by the newest law on the books, which makes real the promise of at least $300 billion extra in acceptable appropriations during the next several months.

But something largely overlooked got tacked on to that bipartisan agreement on a spending splurge for both guns and butter, signed by the same President Donald Trump who then called for deep curbs in domestic programs and the social safety net.

It was a commitment by all the players to get their budgetary story straight. They promised to make a plan, by the end of this year, for ending the confusion and contradiction, showdowns and postponements that have characterized this and almost every other budget debate of the past quarter-century. 

On the surface, their vow sounds like nothing more than that classic yawner of a bureaucratic shuffle, the formation of a blue-ribbon panel. But the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform has built-in bipartisan credibility, real teeth, a tight timetable and a plausible mandate.

By the end of next week, its members are supposed to be tapped by the leadership, with a quartet from each of the Capitol’s four corners (Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate). Then they have until the week after Thanksgiving to propose “significant” changes to the way Congress is supposed to exercise its power over the purse, essentially replacing the system created in a 1974 law that bears almost no resemblance to the recent hodgepodge of one-off workarounds.

That will be possible only if the committee reaches a genuine bipartisan consensus, because majorities of both parties are required for making recommendations. But whatever legislation or changes to Hill rules the committee recommends is guaranteed a Senate vote by the end of the year, albeit with a 60-senator threshold for advancing. If that happens, the House would be very likely to go along.

Watch: McConnell, Schumer Discuss Trump Budget

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Growing apart

Here are some ways in which the rules and the reality have veered far apart in recent years.

The law says the annual process begins with the president proposing a budget no later than the first Monday in February. But Trump’s newest submission was a week late, his first budget came out almost two months late, and all but one of President Barack Obama’s eight budgets were similarly tardy.

The law says that by April 15 Congress is supposed to adopt its own budget, a nonbinding blueprint for tackling the big fiscal decisions coming in the rest of the year. The most important regular feature of this budget resolution is to be a grand total for discretionary spending, or appropriations. But there has not been a completed budget resolution in nine of the past 20 years, and the last one finished by the official deadline was 15 years ago.

One reason budget resolutions haven’t been a big deal in recent years is that, back in 2011, Congress wrote a law setting 10 years’ worth of what were supposed to be stringent and binding spending limits, the so-called sequester caps. Congress has unscrewed those caps, and spent more, every year since.

The law says budget resolutions can set special fast-track legislative rules — the filibuster-proof reconciliation process — for considering bills that will effect big changes in the federal balance sheet. The aim was clearly to ease the process for making political decisions about raising taxes or cutting government benefits in order to hold down annual deficits and accumulating debt.

Instead, four of the last seven reconciliation laws have been tax cuts, and the last such law that focused on curbing the growth of mandatory spending was 13 years ago. Left to run on autopilot, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other so-called entitlements have been growing much faster than inflation and now account for more than 60 percent of all federal outlays — and more than double the money appropriated annually at the discretion of Congress.

The law says the Appropriations committees are supposed to apportion the grand total for allowable discretionary spending into a collection of bills covering different aspects of the government; there are a dozen currently, by far the biggest for the military and by far the smallest for the legislative branch. And each of those measures is supposed to become law, on its own, before the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year.

But the last time all the regular pieces of spending legislation got finished on time was 22 years ago. The last time even a single one of them got a presidential signature by the statutory deadline was nine years ago. And so far this decade, just seven of the individual appropriation bills, out of a possible 96, have cleared Congress at any point on the calendar.

Plugging all the holes in the appropriations system during the past two decades have been no fewer than 113 different continuing resolutions (including the current CR, the fourth of fiscal 2018, which lasts to March 23) allowing cash to continue flowing to agencies and programs for anywhere from a single day to six months. Collections of these stopgap bills have kept all or parts of the government running in place for as little as three weeks and as long as eight months into the new fiscal year, until all the belated budgetary decisions got made.

Watch: David Hawkings’ Whiteboard — continuing resolutions

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A little homework?

The new committee will have no shortage of reading material to get started, because proposals to “reform” the budget system have been produced by a wide array of think tanks and lawmakers all along the ideological spectrum.

The change that gets proposed more than any other is to convert to a biennial budgeting calendar — and not simply because, as a cynic might say, doing so would automatically cut in half the frequency with which the budget process runs aground.

Rather, the argument emphasizes the need for House members and senators to spend more of their energies on oversight, investigating programs and agencies to make sure taxpayers are getting what Congress is paying for and then debating legislation to correct when bureaucracies steer off course. Focusing on those tasks in a campaign year, and then setting spending levels in the odd-numbered year after each election, might make good political and policymaking sense.

A related notion is frequently suggested: Do away with today’s bifurcated Hill jurisdictions, in which each federal program looks to one set of House and Senate panels for its policies and a totally different set for its spending levels, and create a series of committees responsible for both authorizing and appropriating across an entire area of the government.

To make sure entitlements are not given so much costly benign neglect, several think tanks would require Congress to make affirmative decisions about spending formulas for those programs every year, in effect replicating the discretionary spending debate to cover mandatory spending as well.

Maybe the most provocative concept is to turn the budget process on its head, and begin the process with a debate on binding legislation setting a limit on the growth of the national debt during the coming year — a decision that would both set a deadline for, and conscribe, all the subsequent decisions about appropriations, entitlements and taxes.

Other ideas include shifting the budget year so it starts Jan. 1, which means Congress would be called on to finish its deliberations before heading home for the holidays; creating disincentives for the use of CRs as a budgeting patch; and curbing the creation of special war-fighting and disaster relief accounts that aren’t subject to spending caps.

“Make no mistake: improving the budget process will not by itself eliminate partisan polarization, restore civil discourse, or increase willingness to seek common ground. Nor will it make elected leaders more courageous in the face of hard choices,” Alice M. Rivlin, the only person who’s ever been in charge of both the Congressional Budget Office and the White House Office of Management and Budget, wrote in outlining her own ideas for change four years ago.  

But, she concluded, it’s nonetheless time to get rid of “a process too complicated to execute in a timely fashion even when partisan hostility was lower than it is now.”