(NOTE: Please don’t @ me with something to the effect of “This is not news, you moron” until you read the next three paragraphs.)
A special joint select committee that has been meeting since March supposedly to propose improvements in the way Congress considers the budget each year is about to recommend changes that will actually make the budget process much worse.
Rather than proposing reforms that will make federal fiscal policy better and the debate more transparent and on schedule so that government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, continuing resolutions and debt defaults are less likely, the committee is about to recommend procedural changes that just make the federal budget a much less difficult vote for representatives and senators.
In other words, under the pretense of better budgeting, the committee is going to recommend changes that will do nothing other than make Congress’s political life much easier.
Keep in mind that Congress doesn’t actually need a budget process. If they choose to use it, the House and Senate already have all the power they need under Article I of the U.S. Constitution to do whatever they want.
And, contrary to what most members of Congress will tell you, the existing budget process actually works exceptionally well whenever the House and Senate want to do something. Over its 44 year history, the budget process has been successfully used to decrease and increase taxes, spending and the deficit.
But the key in the two previous paragraphs is the word “want.” When it comes to the budget, neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, Gramm-Rudman-Hollings or any other law have been able to force members of Congress to do anything — like spending cuts and tax increases — they don’t want or simply refuse to do. There are no effective enforcement mechanisms or penalties for not complying so representatives and senators have ignored the Constitution and laws with absolute impunity.
Enter the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform.
Rather than focus on enforcement, the committee is going to markup a bill with one major recommendation: Instead of the current requirement that Congress adopt a budget every year, the new process will only require that a budget be passed every other year.
The most immediate impact of this change will be that the House and Senate will now only be able to be criticized once every two years either for failing to pass a budget at all (which will still be the most likely legislative outcome) or for voting for a budget with a trilion-dollar-plus deficit.
Representatives and senators will consider either of these a political positive because it will cut in half the number of nonvotes or tough votes they have to take before the next election. But it will be terrible for federal fiscal policymaking.
The two-year budget Congress adopts is very likely to be widely out-of-date by the second year. Congress will then have the choice of adopting an interim budget to reflect the new circumstances and, therefore, making a mockery of the original two-year budget; not approving a new interim budget and having to live with a fiscal plan that is acknowledged to be inappropriate; or ignoring the two-year budget with a jury-rigged process that gets far less scrutiny.
Even worse is that this will make the president’s budget even less relevant than it is already. For example, if the two-year budget requirement were in effect now, the budget the Trump administration is supposed to submit to Congress in February 2019 would have to propose spending and taxes policies that will continue to be in effect until October 1, 2022, that is, almost three years from now.
Still to be decided is whether appropriations would also be changed from one to two years.
The answer is probably, or almost certainly, not. While it would make sense from the perspective of federal agencies and department for which assured, on-time funding would be a boon to better management, it would make no political sense for the appropriations committees because it would cut their power in half.
On top of everything else, there still won’t be anything to force Congress to adopt a budget regardless of whether it is for one or two years.
Of course, the joint select committee won’t say any of this. It has already talked in lofty, holier-than-thou tones about the current budget process being broken.
As with most scams, this is misdirection. The real goal is not better federal budgeting; it’s reducing the political pain for members of Congress.