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Budget Overhaul Proposals Likely to Stay in Play After Nov. 30

Joint Committee expected to offer recommendations next month

House Budget Chairman Steve Womack, R-Ark., says that proposals that aren’t accepted by other lawmakers could work their way into future legislation. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Budget Chairman Steve Womack, R-Ark., says that proposals that aren’t accepted by other lawmakers could work their way into future legislation. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The legislative proposals under development by the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform could enjoy a life of their own after the special panel’s work is done later this year.

Members of the 16-member bicameral committee are hoping to agree on a package of proposed changes to improve the budget process by a Nov. 30 deadline, allowing their recommendations to be submitted to Congress for action.

But whatever recommendations may or may not emerge, the proposals developed by the select committee are likely to play a role in further congressional deliberations.

Rep. Steve Womack, co-chairman of the Joint Committee, said the panel’s goal is to reach consensus on changes in the budget process that can be sent to the floor for votes in both chambers. But the Arkansas Republican also envisions that some of the proposals not adopted by the committee or accepted by their fellow lawmakers could be attached to legislation or considered as standalone bills in a future Congress.

For example, there seems to be an agreement emerging to move the annual process of trying to adopt a budget resolution to a biennial one, or every two years. But on other matters, such as moving the start date of the fiscal year to give appropriators more time to complete full-year spending bills, or changing the process for lifting or suspending the statutory borrowing cap, panel members don’t expect to reach consensus.

“There may be things on the menu that we’re going to offer in our package that the Congress may say, ‘Well, we’re not real sure about that one, and we’ll put that on hold a minute, maybe that’s something we could come back to in a subsequent Congress or maybe a subsequent joint select committee,’” said Womack, who also chairs the House Budget Committee. “For example, we may not be able to resolve how you deal with the debt ceiling in whatever our proposal is. But that’s something that we’ve talked about and that we could offer. And whether it gets accepted or not, it could be something that could be considered down the road.”

The Joint Committee is co-chaired by New York Democrat Nita M. Lowey, ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, and comprises eight senators and eight House members with equal weight on both sides of the aisle.

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Chicken or egg?

Members of both parties in the House and Senate believe the budget and appropriations process can benefit from changes. At the same time, there is disagreement over how much the inability to pass spending bills on time is due to a broken budget process and how much is due simply to political differences.

The House and Senate Budget committees have been working on proposals to change the budget process for several years. Last year, Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming reached consensus with Democrats and Republicans on the panel to implement several modest changes including releasing the budget resolution text to committee members ahead of markups and setting deadlines for filing amendments.

The Joint Committee is unusual, however, in that it has provided a forum for an equal number of Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate to write and discuss process changes aimed at winning support in both chambers.

In a similar way, Republican and Democratic lawmakers worked together to develop dozens of proposals to reduce the deficit beginning in 2010 with a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform led by Democrat Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton administration chief of staff, and former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson.

That was followed by more informal talks in 2011 held by a group of lawmakers led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The effort continued with the creation of a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — which became known as the “supercommittee” — co-chaired by Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling as part of the 2011 deficit reduction law.

The fiscal commission and supercommittee did not gain enough support from their members to issue formal recommendations to Congress. Nevertheless, lawmakers would go on to adopt many of the proposals crafted by all three groups for use as offsets to higher discretionary spending in the subsequent two-year budget deals in 2013 and 2015. Some of the proposals also were used to reduce the deficit.

Take the 2013 cap-raising deal negotiated by Wisconsin’s Paul D. Ryan, the House Budget chairman at the time, and and Murray, who was Senate Budget chairman. Several of the major offsets were drawn from the previous groups’ work, such as an increase in aviation and customs user fees, requiring federal workers to pay more toward their retirement and raising the premiums that companies pay for federal pension insurance.

“When I worked on Simpson-Bowles, when I worked on the supercommittee, neither resulted in legislation, but both of those committees plus the Biden-Cantor group developed tons and tons of policies that were then used as offsets and were used in bipartisan negotiations and partisan negotiations for years to come,” Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said. “I think it’s going to be the same thing with this whether they succeed or fail.” Goldwein served as associate director of the fiscal commission and senior budget analyst to the supercommittee.

Debt limit deadline

Goldwein said budget process change proposals could end up being attached to another suspension of the debt limit required after the debt ceiling is reinstated next March, or to another agreement to raise the discretionary spending caps next year. “I could see them sticking around and being the type of thing that you attach as your demand for agreeing to a budget deal or as your demand for agreeing to a debt ceiling increase,” he said.

Womack hasn’t pinpointed a date when he wants the select committee to file its recommendations. But he said he plans to talk with committee members after the midterms and meet with them shortly after Congress returns Nov. 13.

“Our committee has talked at length about the need that once we are finished in November and report out, that there will probably and more than likely be a need for a future joint select committee or this particular committee to take its knowledge and expertise and its experience and continue to work on changes that could improve the process,” he said. “I do think the process will continue for sure.”

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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