Reforming the Budget: Budget Process Blues

The partisan battles over the budget since the return of divided party government in 2011 may ease somewhat with the sharp reduction in the deficit and the shift in public priorities to jobs, wages and economic growth.  The two-year budget agreement reached late last year suspended temporarily the automatic, across-the-board discretionary spending cuts and created some room for appropriators to do their work.  Within the strict spending and time limitations of the agreement, the omnibus FY14 appropriations bill subsequently approved by Congress incorporated some of the work of the two committees.  The FY15 budget could well provide even wider scope for the appropriators since the ceiling has already been agreed to. 

This hint of a return to regular order lifts the spirits of serious Congress watchers who know all too well the costs of end-runs around committees and the deliberative process more generally.  The authorization and appropriations processes should be opportunities for Congress to bore in on programs and policies, and make decisions that help improve the performance of government.  New members of Congress have had few opportunities to see how the legislative process can be used constructively and not just a platform for waging ideological and partisan wars. 

This pause in the budget battles and partial return to regular order, however, is unlikely to continue without significant changes in the political environment.  The rise of unorthodox lawmaking as labeled and analyzed by Barbara Sinclair, has been decades in the making.  Multiple or no committee involvement on bills, informal leadership crafting of legislation, restrictive House rules, routine Senate filibusters, ambitious reconciliation measures, fewer conference committees, continuing resolutions, and massive omnibus bills have become the norms of, not the exceptions to, the legislative process.  These procedural initiatives grew out of the need for party leaders to respond to the ambitions of their members, navigate the treacherous waters of partisan warfare, cope with large deficits and deal with the complexity of new issues on the agenda.  Recent years have witnessed an intensification of these once unorthodox procedures. The vehemently oppositional stance taken by congressional Republicans during the Obama presidency has further reduced the opportunities for members of Congress to engage in normal bargaining and compromise.

Budget process reforms, such as biennial budgeting or constitutional limits on spending and taxing, are ill-suited to deal with the failure of Congress to make timely and reasoned decisions on the federal budget.  That job will get done if we can achieve some modest agreement on the importance of making our government work.