Congress Will Never Again Obey The Budget Laws

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The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform that Congress created earlier this year to redo the budget process is on an absolute fool’s errand and should immediately stop what it’s doing.

Even if the committee of eight Republicans and eight Democrats manages to agree on something meaningful (which is highly doubtful), it won’t be acceptable to the full House and Senate.

And even if the committee comes up with something meaningful that passes the House and Senate and is signed by Donald Trump (which is even more doubtful), it will never be implemented as written, intended and promised because:

  1. Congress won’t want to.
  2. Congress won’t have to.
  3. The new process will be politically out-of-date from the moment it’s enacted.

This isn’t innovative analysis; It requires nothing more than understanding the actual history of congressional budgeting over the past 50 years.

The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which has long been venerated by budget wonks (myself included), ran into almost immediate trouble after it became law in 1974 when the same overwhelming majorities that adopted it realized they didn’t actually want to do what the law required.

House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) forced the budget act to be implemented that first year. Whether or not Congress would comply with it since then has been an open question each year with the House and/or Senate often simply refusing to do some or all of what the law required.

This year is a perfect illustration. The Congressional Budget Act (It’s been amended multiple times but is still in effect) legally requires Congress to adopt a budget resolution for fiscal 2019 by April 15.

But there has been no formal attempt by either budget committee to draft one. And even if, as is rumored, the House Budget Committee does try to produce a 2019 budget resolution this week (1) it will still be months late, (2) there’s absolutely no guarantee the full House will take up what the budget committee passes, (3) there’s even less of a guarantee the full House will adopt it and (4) neither the Senate Budget Committee nor the full Senate so far have shown any interest in considering any budget before the 2018 election.

This year is also a perfect illustration of why Congress is refusing to comply with the budget law: Neither House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell want to force their members to vote for a budget that will project permanent trillion-plus dollar deficits and certainly don’t want Republicans to embarrass the leadership by defeating something it wants.

Congress also has little-to-no fear of political or legal retribution for not complying with the budget laws.

Voters don’t seem to care at all about whether Congress follows its own budget procedures. It’s also not clear who would have standing to sue the House and Senate to do what the Congressional Budget Act requires or that the courts would consider what is obviously a very political issue.

On top of everything else, new budget processes and budget deals are only good for the  moment in time when they’re adopted. When that moment passes, the political problem Congress and the White House were trying to solve with that agreement is over.

For example, the 2012 budget deal created caps on spending that looked politically smart at the time but have been repeatedly revised since because the strict limits became unacceptable.

Gramm-Rudman-Hollings — the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act — was enacted in 1985 and then revised two years later when it’s restrictions became politically unpalatable.

And the revised version of GRH — the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Reaffirmation Act — was itself revised three years later when even its relaxed restrictions were again deemed to be politically impossible.

All of this means that if the joint select committee comes up with something it most likely will only be politically appropriate for that one moment. The new process will then be instantly derided and not followed by a House and Senate that sees more political harm doing rather than no doing what’s required. Virtually no one on Capitol Hill will be even slightly worried about any consequences.

The words “Why bother?” immediately come to mind.

 

 

 

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