The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform held its third public hearing on Thursday, May 24. Committee members received testimony from experts on how Congress could make the budget resolution a more effective part of the budget and appropriations process. The hearing witnesses discussed an array of ways to reform the budget resolution, and prominent topics included how Congress approves of the issuance of government debt, the President’s role in the budget process, and how Members should address the country’s medium- and long-range fiscal health. As with wider discussions on congressional reform, the effect of partisanship on the budget process, especially in relation to the budget resolution, was a recurring theme throughout the hearing.
According to the Congressional Budget Act, the House and Senate must adopt a concurrent resolution on the budget by April 15. This budget resolution should include how much the Congress intends to approve for government spending and revenues; the size of the debt and deficit; and instructions for reconciliation, a process Congress uses to fast-track legislation to bring fiscal policy in line with the goals of the resolution. In recent years, Congress has often failed to adopt a budget resolution, which amounts to a failure to set a fiscal blueprint for the government.
Joint Select Committee Chairman Steve Womack, a Republican from Arkansas, lamented Members’ lackluster record of completing the resolution on time. “There even seems to be some confusion from Members in both Chambers on both sides of the aisle about the value of even doing a budget resolution each year. That’s regrettable,” he said. He added that he wanted to make the budget resolution more “useful” for Members and “encourage engagement in the process.”
Bill Dauster, a former long-time Democratic Senate budget staffer, explained what a “good” process would look like. A faulty process was like an “overambitious New Year’s resolution,” he said. “You know, those promises that we would like, but just can’t keep. By February, we’re denying we ever made them.” By contrast, a working budget process “should be like your favorite car. It gets you where you want to go,” he said.
Jim Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute, a former White House Office of Management and Budget and congressional budget staffer, said that the process is neither “timely” nor “orderly.” “Congress wastes too much time on small and irrelevant matters, even as it fails to focus much attention on the issues of real budgetary consequence,” he said.
Witnesses agreed that political pressures complicated budgeting and the work of the Joint Select Committee. “Many of the sources of complaint about current budgeting and budget resolutions in particular, such as failure to meet deadlines or complete parts of the process at all, are due mainly to the intense political conflict of our time, and new processes can’t fix that,” said Joe White, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University.
But the Joint Select Committee could move Congress in the right direction. “This committee is not going to be able to fix how broken our politics are right now or the extent of our broken fiscal situation facing the country but getting something done that both sides see as fair would be helpful as serving as a way to reboot the whole process,” Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said.
One aspect of the contemporary budget process that is often faulted for partisanship is the use of reconciliation. The Budget Act sets up special procedures to pass legislation that will bring the government’s spending and revenues in line with the goals of the budget resolution. Reconciliation procedures allow Congress to consider legislation without the threat of a Senate filibuster. It is a powerful tool to pass such legislation with 51 votes, and Members and congressional observers have criticized both parties for using it as a way to enact signature policies, not necessarily improve the country’s finances. In other words, budget reconciliation has become a way to end-run the Senate filibuster and has been used since the administration of President Jimmy Carter to pass important policy matters. Both the 2010 Affordable Care Act and the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed via a reconciliation bill. But originally reconciliation was an important part of the budget process by holding appropriators and authorizers accountable to the budget blueprint. Since both parties find reconciliation useful to advance their agendas, reforming that aspect of the process could be difficult absent a reform to the Senate’s use of the filibuster.
Committee members and witnesses discussed various aspect of the use of reconciliation today, such as its original intent and whether it could be used to significantly reduce the debt and deficit. MacGuineas panned the idea that one party could use reconciliation to resolve the country’s debt woes. “There is no way that we’re going to get real deals, real progress, real improvements with one party owning all the hard choices,” she said.
Capretta highlighted the fact that reconciliation need not be used for partisan purposes. He explained that in the 1980s, the Democrats controlled the House and Republicans controlled the Senate, so legislation still needed to be bipartisan even with reconciliation. Reconciliation was used in this period so many different measures could be bundled together to make one large deficit-reduction bill, which Members could tout as an achievement. “You’re never going to get deficit reduction of that magnitude if you try to pass a lot of little individual bills,” he said. “They all get mired down in political controversy and every committee wants to be budget neutral.”
Although reconciliation can be a powerful tool, Representative Jodey Arrington, a Republican from Texas, highlighted what he saw as an obstacle to deficit reduction: lack of political will. “Isn’t it always going to come back to, ‘will we have the guts to actually take on some things that we know are going to send us to oblivion, to the debt crisis that will wreak havoc on generations to come?’” he said.