Last week, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) released a discussion draft containing a series of reforms to fix the broken congressional budget process. The draft contains four main components: 1) fiscal controls, 2) budget enforcement, 3) more transparent budget information, and 4) eliminating the Senate’s vote-a-rama.
If you missed our explainer on all the problems with the current process, you can find it here.
Cut to the chase. What are the best parts of Sen. Enzi’s plan?
Every single non-partisan budget analyst has repeatedly warned that our fiscal trajectory is not sustainable. The Congressional Budget Office warned this summer that over the next 30 years, our national debt is projected reach “the highest [level] in the nation’s history by far, [at which point] it would be on track to increase even more.”
Yet, the current budget process doesn’t meaningfully consider deficits, debt, and the long-term ramifications of our current fiscal path. This is a loser for everyone but is especially detrimental to the younger Americans that will inherit this debt.
The Enzi proposal would attempt to change this by requiring Congress to actually think about the deficits and debt when they write a budget. It does this by making Congress set a target for how much debt the federal government can accrue and then puts in place a mechanism to help Congress hit the mark.
How would it work?
The budget resolution would cover a two-year period and would establish a debt-to-GDP target that Congress would need to stay under during that time. The budget would then create a “spin-off” bill that would lift the debt ceiling to that level. Unlike the budget resolutions, that spin-off bill would go to the President’s desk for signature – establishing a comprehensive debt target for everyone involved in the budgeting process. That means that every single spending and revenue decision must be made with that guidepost in mind.
And to make sure they hit that mark, the resolution would create a special reconciliation bill that would allow Congress to adjust spending and revenues in the 2nd year of the budget resolution. If deficits are running too high in the first year, Congress would have a tool to adjust them downward so that they can hit the agreed upon target.
How is that different?
Right now, the budget process really just focuses on discretionary spending, which is about one-third of federal spending. While the budget resolution does include a section for most mandatory spending and revenues, it doesn’t have any real bearing on policymaking.
The process is akin to trying to run a restaurant by only focusing on what kind of food to prepare – ignoring how to get customers in the door, or the location and style, or any other important managerial decisions.
This narrowly focused process has led to incredibly poor outcomes. We are soon to enter an era of permanent $1 trillion annual deficits that will add on to our already historically large $22 trillion national debt.
The only time Congress formally considers the level of debt is when they run up against the debt limit. That debt limit is completely arbitrary and, contrary to its name, has not successfully limited the amount of debt the federal government can rack up.
With this new target system, Congress will actively think about the trajectory of the debt and will have a tool to reach the target they agree to.
The proposal does not necessarily require Congress to lessen their reliance on debt. But at least it incorporates it into the process.
Will this idea work?
Adding the President’s signature to the equation will bring in another negotiating party and undoubtedly make the process harder. But, if there is buy-in from all parties, then this process will be a huge improvement over the current one.
What else is there to like in this proposal?
The Enzi proposal would put the onus on legislative committees that are supposed to perform continual oversight over federal programs to actually fulfill their oversight duties. There is more than $300 billion spent every year on programs whose authorizations have expired. There are also thousands of unresolved recommendations the Government Accountability Office and Inspectors General that could yield massive savings.
The proposal formalizes processes that will require committees to put forward a plan on how to deal with these issues from the start.
It also changes the Budget Committee to the Fiscal Control Committee that would assume an “added emphasis on putting our debt and deficits on a sustainable path.” Hurrah for that!
Anything else to like?
Sure. The bill makes it more difficult to duck budget rules by waiving points of order. There are also several provisions that will make budget data more transparent and it would greatly curtail the the mind-numbingly dumb Senate vote-a-rama (if you don’t know what it is… its honestly not worth your time to look it up).
Is there anything in the proposal that can be improved?
This is a compromise package, so anything that does not have broad support was likely left on the cutting room floor.
There is broad abhorrence for government shutdowns, though there has not been an emergent consensus on how to solve them yet. That said, the time has come to avoid the public becoming collateral damage of political fights in DC. Whether it’s an automatic funding mechanism that forces Congress to stay in town until the budget is resolved, or some other method that incentivizes quick resolution to these impasses, now is the time to solve it.
The biggest problem with these issues is that there is always tension between short term political goals and addressing the long-term fiscal outlook. Our biggest concern is that even if all of these changes are adopted, Congress can continue their old habits of partisan budget drafts, missed deadlines and massive deficits.
There is no process that will be able to substitute for the will of Congress to act, but these changes could at least provide a shove in the right direction. There are many iterations of incentives to try to get Congress to complete their budget duties on time – “No Budget, No Pay” or “No Budget, No Recess” being two examples.
Congress doesn’t work well without incentives. Right now, the only forcing incentives at any point in the budget process is a funding lapse, which comes at the very end of the budget process (October 1st). If they were forced (or encouraged with positive reinforcement) to get their budget planning duties done early in the process, then the rest of the process will be much smoother.
Okay, what’s your assessment?
After the failure of the milquetoast reforms put forward by the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Spending Reforms last year, fixing the broken budget process looked hopeless. It is heartening to see Senator Enzi spend his remaining time in the Senate focused on fixing these issues. His proposal looks to thread the elusive needle of meaningfully grappling with our unsustainable fiscal trajectory without containing provisions that would lose the broad coalition needed for the plan to become law. While its still just a discussion draft and there is a long way to go in the process to becoming law, Sen. Enzi’s plan could be the one to succeed.
So it may not be a cure-all. But it would be an important step in the right direction. The first one in a decade full of fiscally irresponsible leaps.