Congress’ recent spending orgy known as the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 was hardly a shocking or surprising development. The deal, which blew away spending caps by $300 billion (an amount not far behind Israel and Ireland’s annual GDP), was years in the making. The agreement showed that Congress becomes what it repeatedly does not do.
What Congress has not done in a decade is consider the 12 spending bills that fund the government’s various functions through something called regular order – the process by which Congress debates spending bills one at a time, program by program, line by line. Instead, Congress has wrapped up the bills in a ritual crisis known as continuing resolutions or end of year spending bills known as omnibus appropriations.
In everyday terms, regular order is like making a grocery list each time you go to the store as opposed to, say, once a decade. It’s no wonder Congress spends too much in some areas in ways that defy common sense – imagine 45 boxes of cereal for every gallon of milk in your kitchen. Sadly, that’s a realistic analogy. Abandoning regular order has created ridiculous amounts of duplication that total about $100 billion annually.
Congress did not have to go down this road. In August of 2011 Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 that set responsible caps. All Congress had to do was go through programs line by line and modify its grocery list, so to speak, as it went, selecting necessities over duplication and junk.
As Bryan Berky explains here, the 2011 plan created a “Super Committee” which would recommend specific savings totaling $1.2 trillion. If the Super Committee failed, the savings would be achieved by equal cuts to defense and non-defense spending. The assumption was this form of sequestration would be so horrifying Congress would surely come up with specific savings.
This assumption was wrong. Instead of pulling the weeds Congress decided to mow the entire flowerbed, indiscriminately cutting good and bad programs through sequestration. Still, sequestration produced a budgetary miracle. Spending reversed course, going from $3.6 trillion in 2011 to $3.54 trillion in 2012 and $3.45 trillion in 2013. This marked the first time spending declined for two consecutive years since the 1950s.
In this sense, sequestration was a success. But Congress’ failure to lock in savings with specific cuts through regular order meant the benefits of sequestration would be short-lived. Congress’ failure to be specific set the stage for this month’s budget-busting fiasco.
Sadly, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 isn’t going to be fixed but Congress can learn from its mistakes and reboot its dysfunctional budget process. U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) have proposed a pragmatic and sensible way to reboot Congress’ dysfunctional process. They introduced the Biennial Budgeting and Appropriations Act (S. 306), which would change the process so that Congress appropriates funding one year while conducting oversight and evaluating programs in the next year. While conducting oversight and making spending decisions on an ongoing or annual basis is the best approach, the old model of regular order may be beyond repair. Biennial budgeting could create a new and enduring version of regular order that would be a welcome move toward a more sustainable, and sane, fiscal course.