Permanent appropriations: Might they improve the budget process?

If you have not read Prof. Andrew Taylor’s article in the latest copy of National Affairs, you should. It is titled, “Reforming the Appropriations Process.” and is interesting and provocative.

Certainly it made me think. He argues for making appropriations permanent. Doing so would stabilize spending and avoid the high dramas of government shutdowns, continuing resolutions, and all the craziness.

First, I fully sympathize with Prof. Taylor’s observation that the budget process is broken. Our deficits and debt are astronomical. The budget resolution is, as he notes, “frequently ignored, and rarely used as intended.” The shutdown and debt ceiling brinkmanship, and enacting multi-thousand page spending bills are symptoms of the broken budget process.

I agree with him that we need to think big about budget reform. A few years ago I argued in an essay for Brookings that we should consider abolishing the congressional budget resolution, because it seems to require a ton of work but does not achieve much.

Second, a huge problem Congress has with budgeting is caused by the growth of government. We have more than 170 federal agencies, and each year they come to Congress asking for money. Enacting annual appropriations is a task that has dominated Congress’ calendar, and crowds out other important work—like oversight, reauthorizing appropriations, and responding to public problems. More government means more budgeting work for Congress.

This could be fixed by downsizing government, but to date Congress has shown little appetite for that. Hence, there is something intriguing about enacting a permanent appropriations, which would remove a huge load from Congress’ workload.

Which brings me to a third point. Were we to move to a system of permanent appropriations, does that mean we effectively have given up on budgeting?

Recall, a budget is an itemized summary of expected expenditures and estimated income. The purposes of budgeting include the setting and resetting of governmental priorities; the deliberative allocation of resources towards these purposes; and the management of the overall finances of the government. That requires far more than simply enacting a dozen spending bills and letting them run of their own forever.

So, a question that occurs to me is: Can we square the objectives —to say nothing of the processes— of budgeting with the enactment of permanent appropriations? I am uncertain, but maybe it can be done.

Finally, the issue of permanent appropriations cannot but help prompt a broader query about federal budgeting: What roles should the president and legislature play in the process?

Arguably, the 1974 Congressional Budget Act reduced the president to a clerk and a veto player, and greatly elevated Congress’ role. His budget goes to Congress, and often is ignored. Congress when it adopts a resolution, which it decreasingly does, does not send it to the president for his signature. In short, the overall budget process feels little coordinated, and certainly the results are increasingly bad.

It is not clear to me that a legislature, which is (1) exceedingly pluralistic and set upon by interest groups and government agencies with hat in hand; and (2) which represents an immense nation whose citizens pay scarcely any attention to budgeting; and is structurally able to competently lead on setting budget priorities—not on an annual basis.

Again, beyond wielding a veto pen, it is not clear that permanent appropriations would give the president much of a role. So, there is some risk that a basic problem —Congress bearing too great an onus of the responsibility to budget— would go unaddressed.

Would permanent appropriations solve our budget problems? I’m not convinced they would. They might, however, ameliorate the fiscal badness in the short term. And that is no mean achievement.

Filed Under:
Topics: Budget & Appropriations
Tags: Kevin R. Kosar