Enough of our budget farce

A general view of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington February 28, 2013. Positions hardened on Wednesday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders over the budget crisis even as they arranged to hold last-ditch talks to prevent harsh automatic spending cuts beginning this week. Looking resigned to the $85 billion in "sequestration" cuts starting on Friday, government agencies began reducing costs and spelling out to employees how furloughs will work.   REUTERS/Jason Reed   (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) - GM1E92S1U0N01

The Trump administration’s new budget is fake news. That isn’t because it fails to live up to its grandiose title: “A Budget for a Better America: Promises Kept. Taxpayers First.” Nor is it a function of any particular defect, though no doubt there are plenty. Rather, it is simply a reflection of what our budget process has become: all messaging, no planning. These days, all budgets—both presidential and congressional—are basically tools for signaling loyalty to a party’s political base. Whatever fiscal compromises are struck come in spite of these documents, not because of them. Year after year, Congress winds up funding the government through continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills that maintain past levels of spending instead of making responsible choices with an eye to the long term. Along the way, the possibilities of government shutdowns or even debt-limit-induced default add some excitement, and even some real risk of disaster. But the endpoint—continuation of our massive deficit spending, with barely any efforts made to address the main long-term drivers of the nation’s indebtedness—is basically a foregone conclusion. It’s time to try something different. There are a number of ambitious ideas currently gaining momentum on Capitol Hill which would entirely reshape the way spending choices are made. They will meet determined resistance from those who are invested in pieces of the current system. For example, both parties know that the budgets they produce are only vaguely connected with spending choices, and in fact in many years they don’t bother to produce them. (It appears the House will not attempt to pass one this year.) But the budget reconciliation process still provides a potent tool for the Senate majority, making both parties reluctant to abandon joint resolutions entirely. To take another case, there is little to be said in defense of the current role of the debt ceiling—logically, it makes no sense to set levels of spending and levels of taxation and then cry foul at the incursion of debt; no other country manages its debt in this way. But fiscal conservatives are loath to part with the opportunity provided by the debt limit to warn the public of an impending disaster brought on by the burgeoning national debt. They are likely to block any reform that makes it too easy to simply remove debt from the agenda, especially given the rising chorus that says that deficits just don’t matter. In spite of the obstacles, there is a deal here waiting to be made, born out of the shared conviction that the process as it exists today is a failure, both in terms of smoothly facilitating annual fiscal decision-making and reasonably looking after the country’s fiscal health for the next generation. What is needed is a reboot that requires legislators to deliberate seriously about debt, in a way that both parties recognize as being in good faith, thereby liberating us from our tendency to bounce from one crisis to the next. Two reform ideas, in particular, are worth examining: getting rid of the budget committees and process as they currently exist, and collapsing the longstanding separation of authorizing and appropriating functions. Both would be radical departures from the current process, and it is impossible to be sure how they would function in practice. But there are reasons to believe each would create a system with far more serious deliberation surrounding spending choices than we currently get. Replace budget committees with a joint committee on fiscal responsibility The first proposal comes out of the work of last year’s Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, which was created as part of a compromise spending package in February 2018. Although the committee ultimately failed to report a bill, it made serious efforts behind the scenes to produce a compromise package, and a bipartisan, cross-chamber group of the committee’s members continues to work together today. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) has taken many of the principles agreed upon by that core group and worked up a bill that would overhaul the existing process of budgeting. Although it is in its early stages, it deserves serious consideration. Bennet’s draft bill would abolish several familiar elements of the process, including: the existing budget committees, the reconciliation process, and the debt ceiling. In their place, it would create a partisan-balanced, 16-member permanent Joint Select Committee on Fiscal Responsibility that would spend the first session of each Congress setting a debt target and attempting to forge a broadly acceptable debt-reduction package. They would then have a chance to offer it on a fast-tracked basis at the start of the second session. Rather than partisan budget exercises, we would instead have a guaranteed chance to make serious course corrections every two years. Bennet and his staff are emphatic about the need to end debt limit standoffs, and they have previously cosponsored the End the Threat of Default Act, which would simply remove the debt limit from the U.S. Code and thereby end the possibility of standoffs like those of 2011 and 2013. (With very little media attention, the debt limit snapped back into effectiveness on March 2. The Treasury Department has once again embarked upon “extraordinary measures” to finance the government for an uncertain duration.) As already noted, fiscal conservatives are certain to reject that move on its own, as they fear it could permanently remove debt from the agenda. But fiscal conservatives should be willing to consider a debt limit removal embedded in Bennet’s more ambitious draft bill, or something like it, because it guarantees that the cause of fiscal responsibility would have its own dedicated and specially empowered committee. Given that debt ceiling standoffs look to be “dead losers” for Republicans (in former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s words), the more potent Joint Committee ought to look like a more-than-adequate substitute. It would also force both parties to acknowledge that a sustainable fiscal trajectory will require bipartisan support. Without budget committees, under Bennet’s plan appropriators would be charged with determining two-year discretionary spending limits by May 1 of the first session of each Congress. If they failed to do so, all members would become eligible to offer an allocation resolution, with 60 votes required to pass in the Senate. Critics may worry that appropriators are strengthened by Bennet’s plan, “letting the foxes guard the henhouse,” though it is worth asking how different that is from the status quo. Unite the appropriations and authorization processes But one might fashion a fundamental reform of Congress’s spending choices by going straight at appropriators, and there are some members who seem to prefer that approach. In September 2016, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) offered the outline of a plan to entirely eliminate the appropriations committees. Admitting that his proposal was “conceptual only at this point,” Nunes urged Congress to consider giving authorizing committees the power to do appropriations, hearkening back to proposals floated in the 1990s by Representative David Dreier (R-Calif.). He argued that authorizers possess greater expertise, and that allowing them the chance to frame spending decisions would “reduce the duplication of efforts” and thereby make the spending workload much easier for Congress to handle. Supporting the idea of giving appropriating powers to authorizing committees, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.) recently offered another rationale for this move, telling the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress:

When Members of Congress do not feel like they have a say in wielding the legislature’s power of the purse, they become less invested in their work, and less likely to defend the powers entrusted to this body. If the people who are elected to serve in Congress do not have an incentive to defend the powers given to Congress in the Constitution, then it should be no surprise that they will vote to give those powers away.

As Gallagher sees it, Members of Congress not blessed with a seat on the appropriations committees are being deprived of their part in exercising Congress’s power of the purse. That leaves them feeling detached from Congress’s constitutional prerogatives, and indeed wondering whether what they do in most committees matters at all. The suggestion advanced by Nunes and Gallagher raises some questions they have yet to answer. To offer a couple: would the authorizing/appropriating committees they envision do any collaborative work to calibrate spending across different priorities? Would each committee have the power to create its own partial government shutdown each year by declining to authorize/appropriate? Whatever one makes of the merits of these two proposals, it is heartening to see members reckon with the thoroughgoing failure of the current process and seek to fashion an alternative. Ultimately, if there is going to be major change, it will come from members who have decided they are no longer willing to play along with the broken-down status quo.