Congressional budget process is broken, drastic makeover needed

The congressional budget process is broken and needs drastic reconstruction. In nearly half of the past two decades, a staggering nine years, Congress failed to pass a budget agreement — the essential step in following its own rules for budget decision-making. Instead, the federal government lurched from one budget crisis to another with bizarre ad hoc procedures — government shutdowns, sequestration, the fiscal cliff and a supercommittee — and funded the government through continuing resolutions and massive omnibus appropriations bills.

The disarray of the budget process, of course, is a symptom of the gridlock- producing polarization of our politics and the breakdown of respect for the normal processes of communication which enable opposing sides to compromise their differences and keep the government functioning. But even without the stresses of unusually polarized political positions, the budget process needed drastic repair. It was too cumbersome and complex, failed to include the most rapidly growing parts of the budget — entitlement spending and expenditures through the tax code — and was almost impossible for the public, or even participants to understand. This inability to deliver on basic fiscal responsibility occurred under Republican and Democratic presidents and in Congresses controlled by one party, as well as ones with split majorities. We desperately need a new process that can produce a timely budget that allows the government to function with less uncertainty and more efficiency.

The two of us are from different political parties and have held leadership roles in the federal budget process, and we consulted widely with others to produce 10 recommendations. We advocate a budget process that includes all federal spending and revenues, including entitlements and tax expenditures; that is transparent and timely; and that entails a buy-in from the president and congressional leadership. Some will consider our proposals too drastic and others will find them too incremental, but we hope they will spark debate and action.

We propose changing the current annual budgeting cycle to biennial in which Congress would adopt a budget and appropriation bills in the first session, leaving time in the second session for oversight and the moribund authorization process to work. A biennial budget has wide bipartisan support. Congressman Leon Panetta authored the first biennial reform bill that was introduced in 1977 and the idea has been supported by the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

As an incentive, if there is failure to adopt a budget plan by April 15 of the first session, we recommend that all planned congressional recesses be canceled until an agreement is at hand. This may sound like a gimmick, but it would only apply to the public sector the norms of the private sector, where nonperformance results in nonpayment. The American taxpayer has the right to demand elected officials remain on their jobs until duties are completed.

We propose that upon the adoption of a budget blueprint, the statutory debt ceiling be automatically adjusted to be consistent with the budget numbers. We also recommend that failure to adopt a biennial appropriation bill would result in automatic funding of government programs and agencies at the previous year’s level. This proposal unfortunately is necessary because only two times in the past 40 years have all individual appropriation bills been completed on time, the last being in 1994. It would avoid the threat of government shutdowns.

We also recommend establishing a high-level presidential and congressional commission on budget concepts and procedures. The commission would focus on the congressional budget process and the roles of the executive branch, independent regulatory agencies, the judicial branch and the Federal Reserve on impacting fiscal policy.

We know reforming the process will not eliminate partisan polarization, establish collegiality or restore civil discourse. But it can help.

Fixing the budget process requires the will of lawmakers and the president. This Congress in its early days and this president in his waning days have shown that they can come together and pass legislation that started with deep divisions but eventually ended with agreement. So why not use that momentum to fix this long-standing problem.

Difficult political decisions demand more than new budget tools. They require political will. It is time for Congress to show it has the tools and the will to do its job.

Read Rivlin and Domenici’s paper: Proposal for improving the congressional budget process