Throwback Thursday: Are we surprised the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform crashed and burned?

Last February, Congress established a Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. The committee, comprised of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate, was charged with identifying ways to improve how Congress sets fiscal policy. The law directed the committee to issue its final report by November 30, 2018. After months of public hearings, private meetings, and apparent bipartisan camaraderie, the committee “overwhelmingly rejected its own set of proposals,” bringing their work to an unceremonious (and unproductive) end.

While many federal budget watchers were optimistic that the committee would find ways to counter the dysfunction that characterizes the process today, some congressional experts were decidedly less so.

Writing about the joint committee last March, James Wallner argued:

“Yet notwithstanding these procedural advantages, and the fact that several reform-minded members have been tapped to serve on the joint committee, the outcome of similar efforts in the past suggests that Congress’ latest attempt at budget process reform will still fall short. This is because procedural solutions alone can’t solve Congress’ fiscal problems. Members’ rhetoric and policy positions on government spending are not aligned. This is nothing new. And Congress’ record suggests that this latest effort will also have little lasting effect. There are simply no procedural silver-bullets that can force the House and Senate to embrace a more rational appropriations process.”

Josh Huder similarly observed that a new budgeting process can’t make partisanship go away:

“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.”

Heading into the 116th Congress, reform — political, policy, and institutional — tops the agenda. While some reforms are possible (namely those that can be adopted by party vote) others are likely to follow the joint committee’s “crash and burn” path. Why? Because as Josh Huder argues, “The peak-dysfunction of the last decade is not attributable to the budget process.” It’s the result of broader political and procedural trends that remain. And until members decide it’s necessary to make tough decisions, nothing is likely to change. As James Wallner succinctly observes: “Political will, not intricate procedural reforms, is all that’s needed to change course.”

Marian Currinder
Marian Currinder is a permanent staffer of the U.S. House of Representatives' Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress as of December 2019. ...