Oct. 9, 2011 – 6:37 p.m.
Political Economy: Breaking the Mold
By John Cranford, CQ Columnist
Longtime observers of the increasingly dysfunctional budget and appropriations process on Capitol Hill tend to fall into two camps: those who say lawmakers are unable to do their No. 1 job because they are unwilling to make tough choices, and those who think the method of fiscal policy decision-making is fundamentally flawed.
For some people in both camps, one possible remedy lies in overhauling the way Congress adopts budgets and enacts appropriations. It’s an idea easily dismissed with a cliché: Changing the budget process is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Well, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is time to try a new tack. And perhaps Congress has established a laboratory that, at the very least, will prove that different times do demand different approaches to problem-solving.
The creation of the joint deficit reduction committee — coupled with a big enforcement hammer in the form of automatic spending cuts — is plainly a new approach to an old problem.
The path to fiscal policy compromise has long proved elusive. And it’s far from certain that the joint committee, with its equal membership from both parties and both chambers, will find it. The lawmakers on the joint committee are — from all appearances —taking their responsibility seriously and are intent on achieving their goal of at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.
Relatively few outsiders are convinced that even the most well-intentioned group can succeed in the current political environment. For the most part, the lawmakers on the joint committee have close ties to their parties’ leaders. The impetus not to compromise — or at least to avoid concessions that would offend either the conservative base of the Republicans or the liberal base of the Democrats — is a high hurdle for mere politicians to leap.
Still, if by some miracle the joint committee produces and Congress accepts its work, that might signal that changing the process for decision-making can break logjams.
If so, maybe it’s also time to overhaul the basic machinery of budgeting that has been in place for more than three decades now — and no longer yields either the desired result of an annual budget to guide fiscal policy choices or permits enactment of routine spending bills in a timely way. Not since 1996 have all appropriations been completed by Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year. On five occasions in the past decade, the work wasn’t finished until January or later. And catchall omnibus bills that cover the broad expanse of federal operations are the norm, not the exception — although they receive little scrutiny and are rarely subject to more than cursory debate.
A Two-Year Cycle
Overhauling the budget system need not be regarded solely as an admission of failure, although that charge is certainly out there. Recall that lawmakers have been trying to understand and manage the federal budget since enactment of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. That’s the law that stopped agencies from sending their budget requests straight to Congress, requiring that they be passed through the White House. It gave the president a chance to pre-empt submissions that were ill-advised or unwarranted on either political or policy grounds. And it gave Congress a more unified method of assessing the spending needs of the executive.
Still, that law proved insufficient after a time to meet Capitol Hill’s desire for budgetary control, and so we got the 1974 Budget Act, which established the system of budget resolutions followed by appropriations bills that is supposed to work today.
Last week, the Senate Budget Committee held a love-fest hearing of sorts over the idea of moving to a two-year budget cycle. That would require lawmakers to make fiscal choices one year and allow them to conduct detailed oversight into Washington’s operations and the nation’s needs the next.
Political Economy: Breaking the Mold
The idea is that most discretionary-spending decisions are made at the margins anyway, and they can be altered at the margins if an emergency warrants. So, why waste time every year fighting the same battles — both the petty ones and the deeply ideological ones — when lawmakers might better spend some of their time reviewing in depth the consequences of their actions and the underlying performance of the government?
The idea of a biennial budget has many detractors, of course, not least among them those with the most vested interest in holding the purse as close as possible: the appropriators. But, while the members of the Appropriations committees, or some of them anyway, might have a clear sense of what they are doing and why, the current process hardly appears rational to the rest of the world.
Moving to a two-year cycle also won’t remove the underlying differences that make budgeting such a difficult exercise. But a change in venue — or timing — can upset entrenched dynamics and give participants a new perspective. There are expectations that the joint committee might be looking at budget processes along with tax and spending priorities. Perhaps they will conclude that it’s high time for a change in the ways in which lawmakers do their business.