When the governing process fails to function properly, reform becomes imperative.
Congress acknowledged its broken approach to passing budgets and spending bills when it recently created a joint House-Senate committee in the Bipartisan Budget Act, to recommend long-overdue reforms in these most fundamental areas. Now, it’s time to build on this momentum by calling for broader institutional changes, through the establishment of a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, to allow them to tackle the spectrum of major issues confronting the nation.
Temporary budget fixes that lead to government shutdowns are no way to do business. Contemporary Congresses have relied on a broken, crisis-driven process for passing budgets, which has led to overspending, funding delays, and lapses in government operations. Since the federal budget process used today began in 1976, the government has been forced to shut down a total of twenty times, including twice already in 2018.
This year, during the same dysfunctional broken budget process, Congress decided it must find a solution. The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform is composed of members of the House and the Senate, who will have until the end of November to analyze all aspects of the current process, and submit recommendations and legislative text on how to fix it.
The need is compelling. Not only has Congress largely abrogated its statutory responsibility to pass annual budgets, but also the 12 separate yearly appropriations (spending) bills they are supposed to enact. In a perfect world, Congress would first approve a budget, authorizing committees would meet and consider programs for authorization or reauthorization, and appropriators then would agree to the funding needs, weighing the necessity of each component before sending their spending bills to the President’s desk.
However, things rarely go as planned. The process has grown more divisive by the year as partisanship leads to budgets that are purely party messaging documents or vehicle used to produce short-cut procedures to help ram through party-line proposals, such as the Affordable Care Act or tax reform. Federal spending agreements are pushed past deadlines, resulting in shutdowns at the expense of the taxpayer. Congress is forced to rely on “continuing resolutions,” which are temporary fixes, providing flat funding or across the board cuts, to federal agencies and engendering government waste and inefficiency. After countless continuing resolutions, Congressional leaders and the president inevitably hammer out a massive, one-size-fits-all spending bill that excludes input from rank-and-file members and is frequently too long and complicated for any legislator to truly comprehend what it does.
The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform shows great promise for reforming this defective approach to budgeting, and is a substantial first step toward a more functional Legislative Branch. However, the budget and appropriations process is only one component of the institutional duties of Congress. Now, it is vital we apply this same reform concept to Congress as a whole.
Debate, oversight and legislating are all dying in today’s Congress. As noted in BPC’s Healthy Congress Index, in 2017, neither chamber gave its members many opportunities to offer amendments to legislation. In the House, 53 percent of rules were closed rules, which means Members were not permitted to offer any amendments to those pieces of legislation. Further, while the Committees are functioning and passing legislation, these bills are not making it through the process to become law. It is not surprising that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that 189 program authorizations will lapse by the end of this fiscal year.
Congress cannot work unless all of its parts work — and an overhaul has become essential. Clearly, we have reached a tipping point when new reforms are necessary. That is why congress must complete the job begun with the panel addressing budgets and spending, by establishing the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. Only then will Congress consider across-the-board changes to the way it conducts itself, renew faith in the institution, and make our government work once again.