With Expectations Low, Select Budget Panel Prepares to Meet

Committee has broad mission, but few hard deadlines

Rep. Steve Womack, the new House Budget Committee chairman, is head of the select budget panel. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Steve Womack, the new House Budget Committee chairman, is head of the select budget panel. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 5, 2018 at 5:03am

The select committee tasked with overhauling the budget and appropriations process is mandated by law to meet for the first time this week. But what they plan to talk about remains a mystery.

The law establishing the committee instructs the 16 members to provide “recommendations and legislative language that will significantly reform the budget and appropriations process” before Nov. 30, with an initial meeting to be held by March 11.

Committee members from both chambers aren’t sure what specific areas they’ll focus on, or which changes can garner the bipartisan support needed to actually become law.

“When we had hearings on process under Tom Price’s chairmanship, everything he did … was to try to set up triggers for cutting spending. If that’s what this were to devolve into, then it’s hopeless,” said House Budget Committee ranking member John Yarmuth of Kentucky.

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The House Budget Committee is now run by Rep. Steve Womack, also the co-chairman of the bicameral select committee. How the Arkansas Republican will work with his Democratic counterparts, and how well he can negotiate a bipartisan deal at this level, remains to be seen.

The Budget Committee is known for putting together partisan resolutions that don’t need to be signed into law, whereas the House Appropriations Committee often works across the aisle to write the 12 annual spending bills. Womack is just weeks into his chairmanship, while Nita M. Lowey —who will join him at the top of the select panel as Democratic co-chairwoman — is a seasoned negotiator as ranking member on Appropriations.

Lowey, however, said what the panel’s mission will be is a “great question.” The New York Democrat appeared skeptical of the panel’s ability to significantly change the budget process, and did not seem very enthusiastic about the GOP-led endeavor to form the select committee in the first place. “Some people think it’s worthy of discussion and I’m always willing to discuss,” Lowey said.

The four House Republicans on the panel have already met once, although what their specific goals are remains unclear.

House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas said panel members want to “find consensus that would be good for both sides and make an agreement and get a good deal done.”

‘Real consequences’

GOP Sen. David Perdue of Georgia has some concrete ideas because he has been pushing to revamp the budget process since he first came to the Senate in 2015 and played a key role when Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming tried to put together an overhaul effort in 2016.

“The outcome of this should be a politically neutral platform that allows us to fund the government on time, every year, with real consequences if we don’t,” Perdue said.

Perdue wants to move the appropriations process from a fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1, to a calendar year. Right now, the fiscal year begins four months before the budget process launches on the first Monday in February, when the White House is supposed to release its budget request.

Perdue also wants his colleagues to consider rethinking a partisan budget resolution, which creates significant problems for advancing spending bills, particularly in the Senate.

“The problem is the budget is a resolution, not a law, so the majority always crams down the throat of the minority their view of the political financial future the country ought to have,” Perdue said. “So, we get to the authorization process and it’s a law with 60 votes and they say ‘We’re not going to help you get that passed.’”

Perdue also thinks the select committee should avoid trying to change the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to begin formally debating a bill and move it toward final passage. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said repeatedly that he will not change that rule.

Odd mixture

Select committee members, tasked with the most significant changes since the modern budget process was established in 1974, include a number of familiar faces from leadership positions such as Yarmuth, Lowey, Sessions and Womack.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island was the lead Democrat in 2016 to look at a potential bipartisan budget process overhaul, working with Perdue, who was also named to the select panel.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri is a member of Senate GOP leadership and the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee chairman.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, sits on the Finance Committee, which overseas a vast swath of mandatory spending programs and has jurisdiction over the entire tax code. He’s also been a part of previous bipartisan attempts to control deficits.

“If I can be useful, I’ll try to be useful,” Bennet said.

They also have some newcomers who have not typically been associated with budget and spending issues, but have gained some experience in recent years.

For example, Rep. Derek Kilmer of Washington ranks 17th in seniority out of 22 Democrats on House Appropriations, but is considered the panel’s “vice ranking member,” a position reserved for junior members seen as rising stars in the caucus.

Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii ranks 11th out of 15 Democrats on Senate Appropriations, though he is the ranking member on the Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee. Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, the second Hawaii Democrat to be named to the panel, and Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa aren’t on either the Budget or Appropriations committees.

Hirono said her role on the committee will be “to make sure that whatever we come up with will be fair to people and that it will be an open process.”

Rep. Jodey C. Arrington of Texas is a first-term member and the 21st of 22 GOP members on House Budget.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said in a statement that he picked Arrington because he has “proven in a short time to be a leader who is passionate about fiscal reforms.”

Of course, having members outside the process could be beneficial. “Having somebody who is not jaded by the system might be good,” Yarmuth said.

An end to stopgaps?

Brookings Institution fellow Molly Reynolds said the presence of seven appropriators indicates that the panel may end up focusing more on how to get the appropriations process running more regularly and how to reduce the number of stopgap spending bills needed every fiscal year.

Reynolds is, however, cautious about how seriously the panel’s recommendations will be taken, given that there is only one member of the Republican leadership team of either chamber on the select committee.

“I wasn’t expecting there to be significant leadership membership on the joint select committee, but if there had been, that would have been a sign that folks were taking it seriously,” Reynolds said.

How much stock lawmakers put in the panel’s recommendations will be determined in part by how bipartisan its proposals are and in part by how much it adheres to its deadlines.

There is already a strong likelihood that the panel won’t meet before Sunday, March 11 — the deadline set by law. The last four members weren’t named until last Tuesday night, and coordinating the schedules of 16 lawmakers is no easy task.

G. William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and longtime Senate GOP budget aide, was optimistic.

“It will be challenging. But it’s doable, and more so than you would think on the argument that for all practicable purposes the options are out there,” Hoagland said. “If they can narrow their focus and not try to do all the massive number of proposals, I think they can come to an agreement.”

The midterm election results could cause a few bumps in the road, however.

“The major problem is going to be that the reporting date is after the midterm elections,” Hoagland said. “And depending on the outcome of the midterm elections … that may have some impact on whether the 115th Congress wants to bind the 116th Congress with recommendations that are from a differently controlled Congress.”

Enzi, who was not named to the select committee, is a bit more skeptical.

“I worked for two years with Sen. Whitehouse on coming up with budget reform. And we came up with 13 different things that we thought could pass with unanimous consent, but Bernie Sanders was the ranking member and he was gone during that, so we didn’t get it done,” Enzi said, ostensibly referring to the Vermont independent’s presidential campaigning.