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Copies of the 2016 U.S. Government budget
Unpacked

What’s wrong with the congressional budget process?

Molly E. Reynolds
Editor's Note:

In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide analysis of Trump administration policies and news.

THE ISSUE: Congress has a bad reputation for passing spending bills on time, and the tendency for budget proposals to become a vehicle for partisan gamesmanship has only increased the dysfunction. Both the House and the Senate have now approved budget proposals for fiscal year 2018, but that is only the first step in a lengthy political process. More than 40 years after the current budget process was originally designed, could it finally be time to consider reforms?

Increasingly, the budget process is the only place that members of Congress can host their political disagreements.

THE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW:

  • 1996 was the last time that Congress managed to complete all of its spending bills before the government’s new fiscal year started on October 1st.
  • The budget resolution, Congress’s high-level spending blueprint for taxing and spending for a given year, has a deadline of April 15th that Congress routinely misses.
  • You could compare partisanship battles over the budget resolutions to a game of whack-a-mole. Members of Congress and their parties come to Washington with goals that they would like to see enacted, and when opportunities to enact them are eliminated in one place–when you whack down the mole in one spot–they pop back up somewhere else. The budget process is a place for that partisanship to resurface.
  • The budget process is supposed to proceed in an orderly scheduled way: the President sends Congress a budget in February, Congress adopts a budget resolution that sets a framework for taxing and spending by mid-April, and the House and Senate follow that blueprint with individual spending bills to be finished by October 1st when the federal government’s new fiscal year starts.
  • Increasingly, the budget process is the only place that members of Congress can host their political disagreements.
  • The only bills that come to the House floor under an open process are spending bills, so members of Congress place many fights they want to have into appropriations bills.
  • Another place where politics affects the budget process is budget reconciliation, a process that allows bills to move through the Senate without the possibility of a filibuster.
  • In order to unlock the reconciliation process, Congress first has to adopt a budget resolution. That raises the stakes for getting it done, can increase the leverage of different factions, and can make it more difficult to finish the reconciliation process because the stakes are so high.
  • Before we get to specific proposals on fixing the budget process, we have to ask what is the budget process for, and what do we want it to accomplish.
  • The current budget was designed in the early 1970s in large part to address an imbalance between the executive branch and Congress in terms of the power of the purse.
  • Before we start to make specific changes to the budget process, we need to have a broader conversation about what it means for Congress to tax and spend in the current partisan environment.

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