Another year, another failure by Congress to pass its spending bills on time. While the country was rapt by the Kavanaugh hearings, the House quietly passed two more of the twelve annual spending bills to add to the three they passed earlier this month while electing to punt the other seven until December. Amazingly, this is the best effort in years, as only one spending bill out of a possible 84 were passed by the September 30th deadline between 2011 to 2017.
It is no secret that the way Congress approaches the federal budget process is deeply flawed. It is clear that reform is necessary to break the all too familiar cycle of governing from CR to CR, government shutdown to government shutdown. While this year marks progress in process, it still isn’t enough. And it looks like members of Congress may finally be starting to agree.
This summer, House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke glowingly about proposed reforms to the budget process that most prominently includes shifting to biennial budgeting. This would, in Speaker Ryan’s words, free Congress up “to do six [appropriations bills] this year, six next year” as opposed to the current frenzy of expansive must-pass spending bills and late night vote-a-ramas.
Biennial budgeting, or moving the Congressional budget window to every other year, has a great deal of positive effects, especially when compared with current budget dysfunction. Some benefits of this change include giving federal agencies more time to plan for the long term and more wisely spend appropriated funds. Giving committees more time to carefully scrutinize spending in between longer budget periods would also allow individual members—not just party leaders—to offer amendments and participate in reaching outcomes in the appropriations process.
In addition to biennial budgeting, members of the bipartisan, bicameral committee tasked with finding solutions to the chaotic way in which Congress approaches the budget process proposed a mix of positive and negative reforms. These include “restoring earmarks, setting an autopilot function for government funding, and keeping controversial policy language out of spending bills, and scrapping the Budget Committee altogether.”
What must be kept front-and-center in each proposal ought to be the goal of returning to a system that encourages participation from all members of Congress instead of simply making things easier for Congressional leaders. Constituents send their representatives to Washington to legislate, debate, and responsibly spend their tax dollars, and gimmicks such as restoring earmarks and limiting what measures can be offered during spending debates will only cause further harm to the already-broken budget process.
Despite these pitfalls, any reform that devolves power from Congressional leadership and empowers rank-and-file members will go a long way toward fixing the way Congress handles the nation’s budgeting.
National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, sharply observing that the broken budget process is “at the center of Congress’s troubles,” adds credence to the breath of fresh air offered from these reforms. Levin argues that “breaking up the big spending bills into many smaller pieces […] would have Congress always legislating but in focused and discrete ways that offer members concrete reasons to be engaged.” By striving for more deliberation and underscoring greater accountability in the budget process, the stage is set for Congress to reassert its long-neglected Article I power over the appropriation of our federal tax dollars.
When individual members are more involved, the interests of their constituents play a greater role in their acts than when bills are hastily written by Congressional leadership to meet midnight deadlines. It is commendable, despite being long-overdue, that Congress recognizes that the current method of budgeting from shutdown to shutdown is chaotic and unsustainable. As long as reforms continue to focus on making the process more about wise spending of taxpayer dollars instead of another set of carrots and sticks for House and Senate leaders, this might be the first time in a while to be hopeful about the budget process.