Sick of federal government shutdowns over political gridlock? So are most Americans. But how do we put an end to these needless impediments? One step would be by improving the budget and appropriations process. The current budget framework was written in the 1970s, and clearly, it does not function the way it was intended to give the dynamics of the current era. Congress must reexamine these procedures and adopt some targeted reforms that could better meet the needs of the American people.
So, what are the next steps? The Modernization Committee held a hearing last week to discuss ways to improve the budget and appropriations system for the benefit of all Americans. Committee Chair Kilmer referred to budgeting and appropriations as “arguably the most important task” Congress is responsible for at Thursday’s hearing. The committee heard testimony from two separate panels about what is working, what can be improved, and how members of Congress can collaborate across the aisle to recover the ailing congressional budget process. First, the committee heard from Reps. Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Steve Womack (R-AR), chairwoman House Appropriations Committee and ranking member of the House Budget Committee, respectively. Witnesses in the second panel included Matthew Owens from the Association of American Universities, Bill Hoagland from the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Megan Lynch from the Congressional Research Service.
Here are the top three takeaways from Thursday’s hearing on how to improve the budget and appropriations process:
1. Implement biennial budgets
Over 20 states have functional biennial budgets. This means that these states enact a budget to fund core agencies and programs every other year rather than annually. In fact, every sitting president since Ronald Reagan has supported the notion of a biennial budget, and President Trump has said he would be supportive of this as well. A biennial budget could allow for greater predictability and a better sense of budget certainty for offices and programs, longer-term planning, as well as more time for evaluation and review of programs. Moreover, there could be more opportunities for oversight and authorization processes during the off year. A biennial budget process would also account for interim emergency funding needs, leaving the door open for supplemental appropriations if needed. Although the potential benefits to this solution are very clear, past attempts at implementing biennial budgets have failed due to gridlock and the divisive nature of the House and Senate. The Senate has leaned towards a two-year budget, whereas the House gravitated towards a one-year budget.
2. Reform the Budget Committee
Since other key committees are so closely intertwined, it would help enhance the deliberations if the chair and ranking member of the Tax and Appropriations committees for each chamber also sit on the Budget Committee. Furthermore, removing term limits for members of the Budget Committee would allow them to make more progress without the looming restriction of time. They would be able to focus more on long-term plans, thereby fostering more advanced and substantial improvements to the budgetary system. Congressional leadership should also be encouraged to have a representative on these committees; that way, the committee will have increased buy-in and the support of the chamber. The Budget Committee can also consider submitting proposals earlier, so that Congress can have ample time to develop and consider budget resolutions.
3. Responsible Reform to Encourage Congressionally Directed Spending
Congress has a constitutional responsibility to review and approve spending, otherwise known in the Constitution as the power of the purse. The total amount of funding directed by individual members’ requests was quite small and provided an opportunity for greater responsiveness to their constituencies and overall oversight. However, the ban on congressionally directed spending (otherwise known colloquially as earmarks) starting in 2011 had further transferred even more authority to the Executive Branch. Several panelists expressed an openness to start taking back congressional power instead of ceding to the federal agencies. Chairwoman Lowey remarked during her testimony that, “Nothing could strengthen the Article I branch of government more than restoring congressionally directed spending.”
Providing greater certainty to this function of Congress is critical. Perhaps Bill Hoagland said it best when he remarked “budgeting is governing, and governing is challenging.” Appropriating funds responsibly is certainly a challenging task, but it is essential for the wellbeing and long-term financial security of our country. This hearing brought some sorely needed our attention to this major congressional responsibility, but there is still a long way to go.
Miss the hearing? Watch it here.