As Washington lurches toward a possible government shutdown, negotiators sparring over federal spending at least agree on one thing: There’s got to be a better way.
Lawmakers long ago abandoned regular order, such as it is, in their perennial tug of war over funding the government. But this year’s chaotic, crisis-prone negotiations have convinced many that the budget process itself needs fixing.
Multi-year budgeting, statutory spending caps, and budget enforcement mechanisms have all become part of the larger spending debate on Capitol Hill.
There’s talk of folding these or other procedural reforms into a pending deal to raise the debt ceiling, which Congress must strike this spring if the government is to remain solvent.
“There’s clear and compelling evidence that the budget process is broken,” said David M. Walker, founder and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative, and former Comptroller General of the United States. “And the stakes are very, very high.”
Three blue-ribbon deficit reduction commissions have all spotlighted budget process reforms in their recommendations for how to tackle the nation’s crippling fiscal shortfall. These include President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which, among other procedural changes, calls for creating a mechanism to enforce deficit reduction targets.
The so-called Gang of Six, senators working behind the scenes on a plan to cut the deficit, led by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., is mulling the commission’s recommendations as it crafts a long-term legislative fix. Whatever budget deal emerges from current negotiations, many now agree, Congress will need new rules, targets and triggers to keep it on track.
“The process right now is actively working against the solution,” said Steve Redburn, project director for the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, housed at the New America Foundation. That commission’s recommendations include multi-year budgeting and annual debt targets, coupled with automatic trigger mechanisms that would cut spending if those targets were missed.
Redburn acknowledged that procedural fixes alone cannot force Congress to swallow painful cuts or bridge ideological divides. As former Congressional Budget Office Director Rudolph G. Penner famously noted: “The process isn’t the problem; the problem is the problem.”
But even Penner, now a fellow at the Urban Institute, wrote recently in The Fiscal Times that budget process rules, “however well intended, have been so perverted that they no longer impose much discipline on fiscal decision-making.”
Time and again, Congress has set out to wring order out of budget chaos, only to find itself grappling with political stalemates and soaring deficits once more. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 and its later amendments, including the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit control law of 1985 and the pay-as-you-go Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 worked in the short term, economists say. But all have been overtaken by events and need a top-to-bottom review.
The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings act failed in part because Congress simply ignored it, according to former Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Alice Rivlin, former Office of Management and Budget director under President Bill Clinton.
Their Debt Reduction Task Force report, released by the Bipartisan Policy Center, calls for discretionary spending caps and automatic cuts triggered by overspending. It also calls for strengthening the 1985 pay-as-you-go restraints, which no longer accomplish much since they only prevent future deficits from getting worse.
While commissions and experts differ over specifics, many now agree that the budget process should be spread over at least two years and that congressional committees need to jump back into spending decisions. At this point Congress is spending so much time wrestling with the budget that lawmakers have little time left over for legislative business, said Walker, who favors biennial budgeting.
“Going through an annual budgeting process makes no sense, especially when you don’t come up with a budget for the year,” said Walker. “We need to free up more time for Congress to do more substantive oversight and reauthorization and legislation, and spend a lot less time on annual budgets.”
Given the mood on Capitol Hill, such procedural reforms could prove as contentious as the emotional debate over entitlements and taxes. The few budget reform bills actually on the table go for style over substance, such as the constitutionally dubious House GOP Government Shutdown Prevention Act. Likewise, recent Senate GOP calls for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget would take years to enact and lack political support.
Still, whatever spending bill Congress approves in the coming days or weeks will only be the first step in what is turning into a much larger budget overhaul. Even as Congress grapples with short-term decisions over spending levels, proposed GOP entitlements cuts and the debt ceiling, the broken budget system is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.
“We’re on a burning platform,” said Walker. “We can’t just make modest changes to a system that’s broken. It’s time for transformational reforms. And the first place to start is the budget process, and bringing back statutory budget controls.”
This article appears in the April 4, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.