The budget process is obviously broken. Or is it?
By Joshua C. Huder
Congress passed a $300 billion spending deal, so clearly the budget process is broken … or is it? The Senate leaders who negotiated the deal clearly think it is. The deal requires lawmakers to establish a “Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform” for the purpose of discussing potential structural and procedural changes to make the process functional again. Don’t hold your breath in anticipation for this reason: the budget process is not the problem.
Budget and appropriations process dysfunction needs to be put in perspective. The process really went off the rails in 2010; prior to then, the process was still pretty much working and Congress still routinely adopted a budget resolution. In FY2010, Congress passed half of the individual appropriations bills. In FY2006, Congress passed 11 of the 12 individual bills. Throughout the 2000s, it was common for Congress to pass anywhere between four and eight appropriations bills; hardly a great statistic, but far from the colossal failure that’s marked the last 10 years.
The 2010s, on the other hand, has essentially been a failed decade. Congress adopted only three budget resolutions, none of which were relevant to discretionary spending levels for the fiscal years they passed. Only seven individual appropriations bills, out of a possible 96, were passed through the Congress. Omnibus bills and continuing resolutions are routine spending process now. It is easily the worst decade of budget and appropriations management since the process was established in 1974.
But is the budget process the real issue? The peak-dysfunction of the last decade is not attributable to the budget process for a couple of reasons.
First, Congress is not using the budget process to budget. Congress reformed (temporarily) the budget process in 2011 when it passed the Budget Control Act (BCA). The BCA set the topline discretionary number (known as the 302(a) number in a budget resolution) until FY2021. Further, the BCA divides that number between defense and nondefense, giving defense funding its topline number for 10 years (known as its 302(b) number), and setting aside a chunk of money to be distributed among the other agencies. This is a budget process, one that Congress instituted for 10 fiscal years.
This BCA has had massive consequences. First, it made the actual process – adoption of a concurrent resolution and appropriations bills under the cap specified in that resolution – entirely moot. Discretionary spending numbers are already in place until FY2021. Nearly every lawmaker in Congress hates those numbers. So every two years we do another round of budgeting to amend the existing numbers. But amending the BCA is a legislative process, not a budgeting process.
Second, the BCA gives the minority enormous influence on what is normally a majority-driven process. Because BCA is a law and not a budget resolution, it requires 60 Senate votes to amend rather than the simple majority that normally governs the budget process. The procedural result is that the minority has much greater budgeting input than normal. This is one reason that Democrats have been so successful as a minority, particularly in recent years. The minority enjoys the benefits of lawmaking without the same pitfalls for failure.
We lament the breakdown of the budget process but completely overlook that it has been replaced with a bipartisan process in a period of historical polarization. Of course it’s destined to fail. The easiest way to smooth the process would be to repeal the BCA, which is near politically impossible given the leverage it offers the minority.
The real problem is these processes do nothing to change the broader political and procedural trends contributing to the breakdown. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) shut down the government this morning because he was not allowed to offer an amendment. Partisan amendments, aimed not at constructive debate but political messaging, have broken down the appropriations process in both chambers. Leaders wanting to shelter vulnerable members from difficult votes shut down the amending processes on appropriations bills in 2009 and 2016. A new budgeting process will not make partisanship go away.
We cannot prevent partisan politics; we can only allow them to play out. Reforms designed to make the budget process more functional are not even a helpful endeavor at this point simply because there are other procedural forces bottling up debate and deliberation in the chambers.