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Potential Fiscal Year Move Sows Discord on Select Budget Panel

Womack, Lowey disagree on moving government operations to a calendar year

Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, who co-chairs the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, says a change to a calendar year would be a motivating force to get spending bills done on time. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, who co-chairs the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, says a change to a calendar year would be a motivating force to get spending bills done on time. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The federal government may soon operate on a fiscal year that begins on Jan. 1, if the Republican co-chair of a special committee charged with overhauling the budget and appropriations process has his way. But Democrats on the panel are not sold, throwing into doubt tentative plans to release a full slate of recommendations this month.

Rep. Steve Womack said Friday he expects the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform to change the start of the fiscal year for the first time since 1976, when it was moved to Oct. 1 from July 1. The Arkansas Republican also said the panel is likely to recommend making the annual budget resolution a biennial exercise instead, though it is unlikely to split the appropriations bills over two years, as has been floated.

“Biennial budgeting and fiscal date, I think, are a couple of things that seem to have a lot of support,” Womack said, adding that the 16-member bipartisan, bicameral committee could release its proposal before the end of the month.

“My personal goal has always been some kind of mark down by the end of the month of September. I’m still on that glide path,” said Womack, who also chairs the House Budget Committee. “We’re very close to having a proposal that I can shop to my committee members, and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

However, Womack’s Democratic co-chair, Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, opposes moving the fiscal year by three months, according to Lowey spokesman Evan Hollander. “Changing the fiscal year to a calendar year is not a priority” for her, he said. Lowey, who is the House Appropriations Committee’s ranking member, believes the current Oct. 1 start date exists “for a number of important reasons, and that start date is not a cause of problems in the budget and appropriations process,” Hollander said.

House Budget ranking Democrat John Yarmuth, a member of the select committee, said last week there is skepticism among panel members about the calendar year idea. He gave the change no better than a 50-50 chance of being adopted.

“There seems to be some resistance to doing that — it all really revolves around holidays in December,” the Kentucky lawmaker said. He said there also are concerns about the timing of federal agency auditing if the fiscal year ends on Dec. 31. He said he does not have a view on changing the fiscal year, however.

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The select committee was formed in February when lawmakers reached agreement on a two-year spending deal. Its members are supposed to “reform the budget and appropriations process” with consensus recommendations agreed to by Nov. 30.

A majority of Democrats and Republicans on the panel have to agree to report out the plan as legislative text, which would then go to the Senate floor for expedited consideration. However, the measure would need 60 votes to advance in that chamber. Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, has said he doesn’t support the biennial budget proposal, indicating potentially tough sledding in that chamber.

In the six months since its creation, the select committee held five public hearings and a series of closed-door meetings to discuss how Congress could meet its spending deadlines and reduce members’ frustration with the current process.

The committee has received and contemplated more than a dozen broad ideas, including recommendations from Speaker Paul D. Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, former lawmakers and outside experts.

A very Washington Christmas

Womack said he isn’t worried about how moving from a fiscal year to a calendar year schedule would affect federal agencies, which is among the concerns that have been raised. He said the change would serve as a motivating force to get spending bills done on time given the threat of spending the holidays in Washington.

“Whatever the date is, we’ll adjust to it,” he said. “You’ve still got the same 12-month opportunities. But the way it’s structured if you go to Jan. 1, I think, it lends itself to having the right recesses, holidays fall in the right place to not serve as a speed bump in the deliberations and in some cases serve as a motivator for Congress to actually do its work.”

One idea that’s off the table, Womack said, is the suggestion of moving Congress from an annual, 12-bill appropriations process to a system where six bills are taken up each year to fund departments for two years.

“Biennial appropriations is problematic for the committee, and at this stage I personally don’t envision it being part of the package,” Womack said. “Biennial budgeting is different. And if we can move in that direction and at least get to a point where we can get 302(a) numbers for a couple years, I think, we’ve got an opportunity to at least move in the direction we’re trying to go.”

The final proposal, Womack said, will also likely include some incentives and punishments for lawmakers when government isn’t funded on time — an idea that, at times, has been divisive.

“We’ve had long discussions about sticks and carrots, on what to do to get Congress to be accountable, to get Congress to do its most fundamental duty,” Womack said. “So there will be some consequences built in to our program; probably not as far as some people would like to go.”

The Budget committees could also look a bit different during the next Congress if the select panel’s recommendations are approved.

“We’d like to strengthen the Budget Committee,” Womack said. “There are some ways you can do it through structure and through membership and building institutional knowledge base by maybe eliminating term limits on Budget.” Currently, lawmakers can’t serve on the Budget panel for “more than four Congresses in a period of six successive Congresses,” according to House rules.

“So, there are some things you can do to make the Budget Committee a little bit more meaningful, and I think we’ll have some of those provisions,” he said.

These changes are not a comprehensive list of what the committee will have in its final bill. Womack said there are still “a couple of things that we are still wrestling with” that could or could not end up in the final bill.

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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