Want Congress to Reassert Its Authority? Fix the Budget Process

Want Congress to Reassert Its Authority? Fix the Budget Process

To most Americans, whether the federal government handles its budget on a yearly or a biennial cycle is not a pressing matter. For Congress, it should be a top priority: A move to biennial budgeting could reduce the negative implications of continuing resolutions (CRs) and omnibuses. 

Congress hasn’t had a functioning budget process for years. In fact, the last time all standalone discretionary spending bills were enacted on time was for fiscal year 1995. Think about that: A majority of federal lawmakers has never seen the congressional budget process operate as it is supposed to. When something is broken for 20 years, it’s time to make changes. 

Fortunately, there’s a bipartisan group of lawmakers looking at this issue. The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform was created in this year’s Bipartisan Budget Act. Its job is to examine ideas for improving how Congress manages its budget process and sets federal spending levels. Historically, omnibuses and CRs have been used to give Congress time to wrap up the budget process. But over the last four decades, they have supplanted regular order and become the de facto process. Both parties are complicit in this, and both parties have a responsibility to fix it. All too often, though, politics comes before good public policy. 

Restoring a functioning budget process can lead to a restoration of legislating. Too many lawmakers gripe that they feel more like a voter than a legislator, either being directed by their leadership or by special interests that “score” votes for campaign purposes. 

Two ways to take the politics out of the budget process are to move to biennial budgeting and start the process at the beginning of each new Congress and change the start of the federal fiscal year to January. Passing a two-year budget early on would give lawmakers the time needed to pass authorization bills before appropriating the money from the U.S. Treasury. Regular authorization bills are important since they allow Congress to keep firm control over policy. 

The Congressional Institute supports a variation of biennial budgeting, according to which Congress drafts a two-year budget blueprint while maintaining annual appropriations bolstered by a robust authorization process. In this way, lawmakers can exert control over government spending. 

Consider a memo from the Congressional Budget Office to the Joint Committee last month that examined how long various discretionary appropriations for government programs are available. There are three categories: annual appropriations in which unspent funds are not available after one year unless newly appropriated; multi-year appropriations that come with an expiration date; and “no year authority” appropriations, in which money can be spent indefinitely until it is all gone. The CBO analysis found that 51 percent of appropriations for fiscal year 2017 were for one-year programs, 33 percent for multi-year spending with an expiration date, and 15 percent for no-end-date spending. 

Since the budget process is so dysfunctional, it might be tempting for Congress to appropriate for all government activities for two or more years at a time. The fact that a majority of discretionary spending is still on an annual basis is encouraging. And some of the functions that are most closely identified with the government, like those of the Defense and Justice departments and the White House, rely primarily on single-year appropriations.

Although we support single-year appropriations, other ideas deserve consideration as well. Some see the CBO data as an argument for biennial budgeting with two-year appropriations bills — a fair argument. But Congress should not pay heed to the few voices that want to keep the current, broken system so they can capitalize on dysfunction. Perhaps the best inference to draw from the CBO report is that we need to restore the actual authorization process, rather than allow appropriators to also be ad hoc authorizers of Executive Branch programs. These multi-year appropriations are reminiscent of multi-year authorizations. 

Research from the Congressional Institute shows that Americans are greatly concerned with how Congress spends tax dollars. The Joint Committee has a real chance to show people that lawmakers are listening and responding in a meaningful way. The extensive use of CRs and omnibuses has increased the power of the political extremes at the expense of committee chairs who have become less involved in leadership negotiations with the Executive Branch. Creating a functioning budget process could not only restore committees to their proper place but also restore the imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches. Congress and the President are co-equals in our governmental system. It’s time Congress reasserted its authority. 

Mark Strand is president of the Congressional Institute.

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