· Adopt a multi-year
Each year, the federal budget is routinely pushed to
the back burner. Despite a procedure
outlined in the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, Congress continually finds itself
either rushing through an already complicated process or kicking the can down
the road with temporary fixes. Instituting
a two-year (or even longer) budget cycle would give Members the time they need
for adequate program review and evaluation, especially for those currently on
auto-pilot. Additionally, it would give
Administration agency leaders more time to plan their budgets and more
stability in executing them. For
example, former House Budget Committee Chairman, Rep. Tom Price, once proposed splitting
the consideration of 12 appropriations bills in half, with six considered one
year (with two-year spending allocations), and the other six the next.
Longer-term budgeting (perhaps of ten years or more) would
help to limit the growth of entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid,
and Social Security. Coupled with
explicit budget ceilings and certain mechanisms that institute periodic budget
adjustments along the way, a ten-year budget cycle would promote stability and
the continuing reassessment of the programs.
· Initiate a
Like every other American, Congress begins its new
year in January. However, the fiscal
year of the federal government doesn’t begin until October—a full nine months
after Congress has begun its legislative work.
This sequence often creates a backlog as Congress pushes aside the
budget for other matters. Moving the
start of the fiscal year to January, when it would coincide with the start of a
new legislative session, would allow for more time to complete appropriations
bills as well as other legislative business.
· Limit or
prohibit long-term continuing resolutions (CRs).
Have you ever tried asking your bank for an extension on
a bill, or your landlord for an extra few weeks to pay the rent? Essentially, this is what Congress does every
time it passes a CR in lieu of a formal budget with appropriations. In fact, Congress has done this 113 times
since 1998, and according to the Congressional Research Service, the federal
government has been funded by a CR for
an average of five months in each year between 1998 and 2016.
To help alleviate this,
Congress should create an automatic CR that would take effect in the event that
not all appropriations bills are passed.
This could potentially eliminate the risk of a government shutdown,
which leads to budgeting by crisis, and might also reduce instability for agencies,
whose financial planning can be adversely affected by CRs.
should more tightly limit the spending ability of CRs, which would encourage
the completion of the appropriations process.
the budget from a concurrent resolution to a joint resolution.
Concurrent resolutions between the House and the
Senate, though useful, are completely non-binding under the law since they do
not require the president’s signature. In
other words, there are no consequences for Congress failing to adhere to the spending
levels it set, itself. A joint
resolution, however, would give such spending levels the force of law, and it would
foster collaboration between the legislature and the president, who would hold
· Create a
Joint Budget Committee.
When adhered to correctly, the formal budget process
calls for many steps. The House and
Senate must produce their own non-binding budget resolutions and appropriations
bills that, ultimately, are meant to be combined in a conference committee and
sent to the president for approval. Its
deceptively simple sequence ignores the myriad policy and political obstacles
that so often slow down the process and run the risk of budgeting emergencies
that result in CRs or government shutdowns.
A joint budget committee, on the other hand, has the
potential to facilitate quicker completion of the process by getting everyone
in the same room from the beginning.
authorization and appropriation activity to the same committee of jurisdiction.
As outlined above, there are many steps to the budget
process that tend to slow things down.
Another possible solution is to house authorization and appropriations
activities in the same committees of jurisdiction. That is, those that have the local knowledge
for setting spending levels are on the same committee as those handing out
funds. Assuming rank-and-file Members
are still afforded the opportunity to engage in meaningful debate, doing so
would reduce the overall number of steps in the process.
binding spending and debt limits.
Americans every day must ensure that they live within
their means, and Congress should be no exception. From 2001 to 2013, Congress has raised the
debt ceiling 14 times, and did so close to 100 times during the 20th
century. This is reckless policy. The debt ceiling should only be raised when
Congress addresses excessive government spending. As such, Congress could adopt one or more
spending caps in a stand-alone statute wherein the ceilings could be applied to
Conversely, Congress could make spending caps, however
they are defined, as part of budget reconciliation bills rather than as part of
stand-alone measures. This would require
that Congress pass a budget resolution to adjust the caps, and adjustments
would only be addressed in the context of spending-reduction policy changes through
reconciliation, which must win the president’s approval.
consideration of spending bills without a budget resolution.
In recent history, Congress has found ways to arrive
at spending bills without any kind of budgetary blueprint, despite its
requirement by the 1974 Congressional Budget Act. Whether simply waiting for deadlines to pass
or overriding points of order with simple majorities, both chambers have
routinely bided their time in order to begin the appropriations process without
a budget resolution. However, this
problem, when left unchecked, allows for more and more spending growth, especially
As such, Congress should be prohibited from
appropriating funds of any kind when a budget resolution is absent. Closing procedural loopholes that allow both
chambers to bypass the proper budget process would also be a step in the right
direction. Failing to address these
problems reduces the legislature’s role policymaking and grants more authority
to the executive.
· Limit tax
Whether it’s a credit,
deduction, or exemption, the tax code is littered with expenditures that aim to
influence personal behavior. While it
would ultimately fall to a reforming of the larger tax structure (like reducing
marginal rates), Congress should consider that the eliminations of certain tax
expenditures would lead to a stronger budget when they are off-set by tax reductions
supermajorities to waive certain budget rules.
Under current budget rules, a
simple majority can overcome practically any restrictions the Budget Act
imposes. The rules, which are not
self-enforcing, require that a member make a point of order, which can be
immediately waived by a simple majority.
The effective result is that Congress can violate its agreed-to spending
limits, and very often do. Instituting a
supermajority, though an imperfect solution, would make this kind of budget
chicanery that much more difficult.
A dynamic score would take
into account certain macroeconomic changes resulting from any proposed budget
legislation. Without it, the Congressional
Budget Office only produces a static score, which merely assumes that any
policy changes would have no effect on economic behavior of individuals that
would be affected. To pretend that budgetary
measures (or any large fiscal bills, for that matter) have no changes to
macroeconomic factors, which in turn influence the spending and tax effects of
the legislation itself, is irresponsible.
baseline bias toward higher spending.
Just like a business would,
Congress ought to justify why it requests increases in spending authority. Currently, when a budget baseline is set,
there is discretionary inflation baked in that creates a bias toward higher
spending. An improved budget process
would eliminate this assumption of built-in, automatic spending growth, and
learn to spend within its means.
What’s more, Congress ought
to remove automatic extensions of expiring programs, and stop taking for
granted that entitlement payments should continue at current levels even when
the trust funds are insolvent.
certain budgetary tricks.
There are a number of things
Congress wrongfully does to make a budget appear sounder than it is. Notably, it prefers to use one-time savings
to off-set increases in spending elsewhere.
This practice should end.
Additionally, Congress should
observe an appropriate treatment of trust funds by establishing a scoring rule
that prohibits any reduction in trust fund spending from being counted toward
offsetting unrelated non-trust fund programs.
· Institute regulatory
It makes sense that if you
want to buy something, you must account for it by saving ahead of time or, alternatively,
cutting costs elsewhere. In the case of
the federal budget, the latter is preferable.
Congress should prohibit any agency from adding new regulatory costs
without first eliminating other regulatory costs by the same amount.
· Require an
annual Fiscal State of the Union.
The president gives an annual
State of the Union before Congress and the American people in an effort to
provide accountability on behalf of the federal government. Why should our federal financial systems be
held to any other standard? Congress
should require the Comptroller General to provide a Fiscal State of the Union
so as to provide consistent accountability to taxpayers.