Making Congress Relevant Again, One Budget at a Time

First and foremost, lawmakers must recommit to their fiscal responsibilities.

Rep. Steve Womack and his fellow budget process reformers had nine months to come up with a plan. But they couldn’t make it happen — and the budget process continues to collapse, Price writes. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Steve Womack and his fellow budget process reformers had nine months to come up with a plan. But they couldn’t make it happen — and the budget process continues to collapse, Price writes. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 14, 2018 at 5:02am

OPINION — With members of the 115th Congress rushing to tie up their legislative loose ends, one unresolved issue may have a more lasting impact than any other. It is the continued failure of congressional budgeting.

Since February, a special Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform has been trying to develop ways of repairing Congress’ deteriorating budget procedures. After nine months of discussions, committee members failed to send even their handful of fairly unremarkable recommendations to the House and Senate for a vote. Thus the budget process continues to collapse.

Budgeting is central to nearly everything Congress does, the cornerstone of its Article I authority. The severe breakdown in budget practices over the past decade has led to a worsening fiscal outlook and squandered much of the legislature’s constitutional authority. To restore Congress as a relevant governing body, regardless of its partisan makeup, lawmakers must, first and foremost, recommit themselves as an institution to their fiscal responsibilities.

That said, the complex and cumbersome congressional budget process needs a thorough overhaul. When Congress next tries to reform the process, the effort should be guided by the principles and suggestions below. (These are among an extensive set of proposals I developed with the House Budget Committee staff while serving as the Committee’s chairman in the 114th Congress.)

Enhancing constitutional authority

Over many years, the legislative branch has ceded too much of its budgeting authority to the executive. For example, under current law, the process starts with the administration’s budget, forcing Congress to respond to the president’s agenda rather than defining its own set of policies proactively. This is backward and antithetical to the Constitution’s goals and framework. Congress should complete its own budget first.

Strengthening budget enforcement

Existing budget rules are too easy to circumvent, or often are simply waived. Such waivers, typically buried in procedural measures, should be subject to open, explicit votes, so the entire House, and the general public, can judge whether they are acceptable. In addition, Congress should eliminate loopholes that allow spending or tax bills to be considered before a budget is in place, and funding for emergencies, which is exempt from spending limits, should focus on specific and urgent problems, and be limited to a short amount of time.

Controlling automatic spending

Most of the government’s spending goes for major entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and numerous others. These programs run on effectively permanent authorizations, so their spending goes on automatically, without any further congressional approval. With unchecked entitlement spending driving chronic and ever-deepening budget deficits, Congress should spell out and enforce specific limits on these programs. Without such limits on the largest shares of federal spending, the notion of budgeting is meaningless.

Reversing the bias toward higher spending

When the Congressional Budget Office evaluates proposals to reform entitlement spending, it measures the budgetary impact relative not to current levels, but against estimates of future spending. These so-called “baseline” projections create the presumption that nearly all such entitlement spending must increase year after year. Consequently, spending less than the ever-rising baseline projections is declared a “spending cut” — even though actual spending is still rising every year. Budget estimators should be required to compare reform proposals to actual current levels of spending, and clearly reflect how spending would still increase, though at a slower and more sustainable rate.

Increasing transparency

The arcane nature of many budget practices makes them difficult for the public, and many members of Congress, to understand. Congress should strive for more straight-forward presentations that non-budget-experts can grasp. In addition, Congress should call for a regular public assessment, perhaps by the comptroller general, of the government’s budgetary condition. The fiscal State of the Union is critically important for every American.

Ensuring fiscal sustainability

For much of the nation’s history, policymakers agreed the most sound fiscal goal was to maintain balanced budgets in peacetime. Since that norm was abandoned, fiscal policy has been adrift, leading to an ever-more-likely sovereign debt crisis. To put the government on a stable financial trajectory, Congress should adopt a series of long-term declining debt targets and ensure they are enforceable — by automatic means if necessary.

These are only a few of the steps Congress should consider to vastly improve its budget practices. Still, they cannot substitute for the most critical element: the determination of legislators to exercise their fiscal and constitutional responsibilities. No amount of procedural reforms, however well designed, can restore that conviction.

Tom Price served as chairman of the House Budget Committee during the 114th Congress and as secretary of Health and Human Services in the Trump administration.

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