Instead Of The Nonsense Congress Is Proposing, Here’s What I Suggest To Actually Fix The Budget Debate

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Photo by Rick Bloom.

After my multiple posts ripping (here and here) the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform for proposing totally worthless, utterly nonsensical and transparently self-serving changes in the way Congress considers the budget, a number of people have told me to put up or shut up.

If I’m so adamant that what the committee came up with is such budget tripe, they want to know the changes I would recommend instead.

That’s a totally fair question that, as a budget wonk, I’m ecstatic about being asked, especially because it gives me the opportunity to include my picture above this post with my answers.

The main issue is simple: Despite their continued public protestations to the contrary, members of Congress don’t want to do any of the politically very painful things that responsible budgeting — like tax increases and spending reductions — sometimes require. The current budget process enables this behavior because it doesn’t force the House and Senate either to make those decisions or to take responsibility for not making them.

The only way to correct this is to create several hard-to-waive nudges/penalties. That’s what’s behind my big four proposed fixes.

1. No Budget Resolution, No Other Legislation.

Annual congressional budget resolutions were intended to force Congress to be held accountable on the deficit. Until they were created by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, Congress voted for individual spending and revenue bills but never had to vote on a full budget that compared each year’s total spending with total revenues and, therefore, showed the deficit or surplus.

That worked until the House and Senate realized that the skies didn’t darken, lightning and thunder didn’t come down from the heavens and evil demons didn’t rise from below if they didn’t adopt a budget. There are, in fact, no political or other penalties for Congress failing or refusing to agree on a budget resolution.

My recommendation to deal with this is to change House and Senate procedures so that neither house is allowed to consider any other legislation — certainly not appropriations or tax bills but also no authorizations or even the naming of post offices — until the budget resolution conference report for the coming year is adopted. This requirement could not be waived under any circumstances and the only exceptions would be for bills that could pass with an extra-super majority of, say, 75 percent.

This will create a constituency for passing a budget resolution: every interest group, the White House and every House and Senate committee that wants Congress to do something on any other issue. The pressure on Congress both to do a budget and to do it early in the year would be intense.

I’m not naive. The way around “No Budget, No Other Legislation” will be for Congress to adopt a totally meaningless, pro forma budget that, for example, ridiculously projects a balanced budget with spending cuts and/or tax increases that are never going to be approved and with a wildly optimistic “rosy scenario” economic forecast that’s never going to happen.

If that’s what Congress does, there’s no procedural change that will make any difference whatsoever.

2. An Automatic Continuing Resolution At Half The Rate Of Inflation.

To stop government shutdowns, I suggest a variation on a proposal that has been constantly mentioned whenever the budget process is said to be broken: An automatic continuing resolution that keeps all agencies and departments operating whenever Congress and the president can’t agree on their regular appropriation by the start of the fiscal year.

My variation is the fiscal version of a Solomon-like decision. My automatic CR would fund all departments and agencies at the current level plus half the rate of inflation projected by the Congressional Budget Office. That would increase spending compared to what’s currently expected but reduce it compared to the baseline. That would be a lose-lose for everyone and an incentive to agree on the regular appropriation.

3. Eliminate Having A Separate Vote On The Debt Ceiling.

The federal government’s borrowing limit should be raised automatically to the level projected in the budget resolution. Congress having to vote on a budget that assumes a deficit and, therefore, higher borrowing and to then have to vote again on raising the debt ceiling to allow the government to borrow to that level makes no sense whatsoever. Having periodic threatened defaults over the debt ceiling is even more nonsensical.

4. Fully Fund The Congressional Budget Office.

CBO, the only truly successful part of the congressional budget process, includes the best collection of nonpartisan analysts in Washington. But CBO is understaffed and overworked. Give it the resources it needs to provide Congress with all the information good budget decisions require.

Follow Stan Collender on Twitter by clicking here at @thebudgetguy.

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