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Joint Committee on Budget Reform Begins Its Work

The first public meeting of the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, held on April 17, resulted in some big-picture agreements among the members.

Unsurprisingly, the lawmakers who comprise the bipartisan, bicameral committee agree that the budget processes in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate are broken.

“We’re losing the right to do the right things financially,” said Senator David Perdue (R-GA), who helped push through the idea of creating the Joint Committee. He noted that the Senate failed to complete a budget last year and could fail again this year. He noted that the Senate has passed an average of two-and-a-half appropriations bills a year over the last 44 years while there have been 20 government shutdowns. Representative Steve Womack (R-AR), who serves as chairman of the House Budget Committee and co-chair of the Joint Committee, noted that Congress hasn’t followed regular order for the budget in 20 years and that the last time all 12 appropriations bills were finished on time was for fiscal year 1995.

Continuing resolutions and the use of reconciliation have become crutches on which Congress relies to avoid the hard work of budgeting, many lawmakers said. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who has worked closely with Senator Perdue, said that reconciliation has “morphed” into a process for pushing through partisan policies. He noted that it was a “bipartisan sin,” where Democrats used it to pass Obamacare legislation and Republicans used it for last year’s tax bill. One of the two witnesses at the hearing – Martha Coven, former associate director for education, income maintenance and labor at the Office of Management and Budget – said reconciliation should be reserved for deficit reduction. The other witness, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office noted that reconciliation is essentially a way to get around the Senate filibuster. He said he “would hesitate to dictate to one chamber how they’re going to run themselves.”

There was a good deal of support voiced for biennial budgeting and changing the start of the federal fiscal year, both ideas that the Congressional Institute has advocated for as being common-sense solutions. Many Members also mentioned the “brinksmanship” of the debt ceiling as something that has become more and more problematic. Senator Whitehouse likened the debt ceiling to a bear trap a person has placed in their bedroom; at best, the person avoids the trap, but they could well get caught, which would be a catastrophe. Other, however, noted that votes on the debt ceiling were useful for focusing Congress’ attention and achieving victories on fiscal reform.

Coven said that restructuring the congressional budget calendar could reduce – if not eliminate – the frustrations for department and agency personnel as well as people and organizations throughout the country, including state and local governments, who rely on federal funding. Holtz-Eakin, meanwhile, discussed radical reforms versus modifications to the 1974 Budget Act and said that, “Fiscal problems won’t be solved by process reform.” Senator Perdue noted that there needs to be a congressional budget process that “functions without all the drama.” Both Coven and Holt-Eakin agreed that any recommendations the Joint Committee makes should be policy neutral.

During a discussion about “sticks and carrots” regarding how to get Congress to do its budget work on time, Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) said it was critical that any “sticks” the Joint Committee might recommend be leveled at lawmakers and not the public.

Although there were some disagreements among the Joint Committee members, there was also widespread hope that they could recommend solutions for Congress to consider. “I’m in the ‘early optimistic’ phase of this, that we’re all together, we’re all nodding our heads, saying something needs to be done,” Senator James Lankford (R-OK) said.

Committee members were not alone in their hope that the panel would produce. Bill Hoagland, a former long-time Senate budget staffer and senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, attended the hearing and noted, “One might conclude from the first public meeting of the Joint Select Committee that bipartisan consensus changes to the budget and appropriation process were just around the corner. However, as Senator Lankford observed, this is the optimistic phase of the process. I too want to be optimistic and if the Committee will not try to solve all the issues that confront the budget and appropriation process in the short time period they have but focus on a few doable, incremental changes, from the members opening statements some progress should be forthcoming. That would set the stage for going further with even more substantive changes in the next Congress. But it is early and as the Senator Lankford further said, ask me in July.”

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