If the Constitution didn’t require Congress to pass appropriations before the government spends money, the leadership would have little leverage to get anything passed. That’s how bad the budget process is these days.
Thankfully, Congress has created the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform to, as the name indicates, fix how the government creates its budget. Since Congress’ record of passing spending bills has been so poor in recent years, it is tempting to want the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform to go big and rewrite the entire Budget Act. It’s a good intention, but a more modest outcome is the best the country should hope for—and that’s not actually a bad thing. The debt and deficit are gargantuan, the legislative process is complex and unwieldy, and Congress has not followed the process for years upon years. Given the partisan polarization in a highly competitive election year it would be shocking if the Joint Select Committee were able to resolve all, or most, of Congress’ problems at once.
The primary reason the Joint Select Committee can’t go big is political. The panel is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats (not to mention Representatives and Senators, which adds a whole different layer of complexity). At the same time, the parties are far apart on fiscal policy, and a lack of trust just deepens the divide. Neither party has indicated that it is ready to compromise on major and divisive policy issues such as spending cuts or tax rates. That means that on a good day anything they propose would need to have wide support. In this environment, modest process reforms are an achievement.
It might seem disheartening to say that we should expect—even want—only modest reforms from the Joint Select Committee. That, however, treats “modest” and “insignificant” as synonyms. If the committee makes a handful of recommendations that Congress can actually achieve, that will be meaningful progress. If these victories set Congress up for more substantial reforms that eventually can resolve fiscal policy disagreements, the Joint Select Committee’s work will prove to be vitally important.
If reformers are looking for some ideas that are likely to gain traction and can be put in place, there are lots to be had. For instance, biennial budgeting would be an excellent start. The idea has been floated for many years now, and many Members of Congress support the idea. For instance, in the 114th Congress, one bill to implement biennial budgeting achieved 237 cosponsors, including three who currently sit on the Joint Select Committee. Plus, Congress and the administration often work out two-year budget deals anyway, so practically speaking, Members are already used to the practice. They could change the start of the fiscal year to January to give authorizers and appropriators more time to get their work done. They could also tweak the composition of the House and Senate Budget Committees. Though it wouldn’t fundamentally change the nation’s fiscal state, implementing a few modest changes would be an ideal way for Congress to take its next step in the process of reform.
Whether or not these simple reforms are Congress’ next step is perhaps beside the point; it is more important that there is a definite and significant evidence of progress. It does not need to be enormous, but if it lays the groundwork for further success in the next Congress then eventually a reformed budget process will result in responsible fiscal policies. As they say, a journey of a thousand miles…
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.