Sept. 23 — The chief advocate in the House for moving the annual federal budget process to a two-year system is down, but not out. Not yet at least.
Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) said Sept. 23 he's frustrated by what he sees as actions by House appropriators, specifically the outgoing Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), to block Ribble's biennial budgeting bill. Earlier in the week, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had said he wanted a vote on the bill and said it could come to the floor despite not being marked up yet in the Budget Committee (See previous story, 09/21/16).
The bill (H.R. 1610) is not slated to come to the House floor in the Sept. 26 week, though. That means its remaining chance for a vote is in the lame-duck session, a prospect that's unlikely given the usual focus of those sessions on must-pass appropriations and tax legislation. Ribble is unhappy with the idea his bill, which he had hoped to see get a floor vote as early as January this year, will die on the vine as the 114th Congress comes to an end. He says it reflects a top-down leadership structure in the House, despite the ascension of fellow Wisconsinite Rep. Paul Ryan (R) to the top spot in 2015.
“I'm not sure we're going to get a vote at all this year. I'm a little cynical on it,” Ribble told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 22. “I really just don't understand any more how this can be held up. I just don't.
“I'm getting to the point of frustration now, because it appears to be the strategy here is just to simply run out the clock,” Ribble said. “This was on the majority leader's list to be voted on in the third week of January and it's been delayed since then. The clock keeps ticking and the bar keeps moving.”
The bill has 237 co-sponsors—more than the 218 needed for House passage—including 55 Democrats and many members on the Budget Committee. Among the co-sponsors is Ryan, who voted for a similar bill in committee when he chaired the Budget Committee as recently as 2014. It would be a simple but significant change in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 by changing almost all references in the law from “fiscal year” to “biennium,” with White House budgets and congressional budget resolutions to be done in the first year of the two-year cycles.
Congress has adopted one budget resolution between the House and Senate since 2009. The so-called 302(a) level, the sum total of annual budget authority appropriators have to dole out, has been set in two-year dollops in 2011, 2013 and again in 2015. Because that level is usually set in the annual budget resolution, biennial budget advocates say Ribble's bill would simply codify the existing way of doing business.
Appropriators are wary, though. They worry changing the budget resolution will mean changes in the annual appropriations process, too. Congress is currently working on a stopgap funding bill to keep the government open past the Sept. 30 fiscal year-end, making 2016 the latest in a long string of years when appropriations have failed to be finished by the time the next fiscal year starts. Appropriators say the process is not broken, but has been held hostage by extraneous disputes instead.
“I am open to the idea of two-year budget resolutions. It may help to bring more certainty and stability in the process,” Rogers said in a statement. “However, I am strongly opposed to biennial Appropriations bills. Approving funding for federal agencies only once every two years will essentially halve Congress’s power-of-the-purse. It hands over enormous control to the Administration, slashes oversight and accountability, and limits our ability to respond to new and emerging needs—especially as it relates to our national defense. And, in practice, it just won’t work.”
Ribble said he's open to a middle ground between biennial and annual appropriations along the lines proposed in the Senate by Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). Enzi has proposed leapfrogging two-year appropriations, with six bills being passed in the first year and the remaining six in the second year.
Ribble said he wished he had instead tried to force his bill to the floor through a discharge petition, but said he did not because he was a team player. The bill's inability to progress shows why many rank-and-file members have often bucked party leadership, on issues ranging from the Export-Import Bank to the impeachment of Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen, Ribble said.
“For my colleagues in the next Congress, they ought to be very careful about this type of governance because that new order is chaotic and it puts the whole system at risk,” Ribble said. “Maybe we'd just be better off forcing the chairman to let it come to a vote even if goes down than to let the system stay in place.”
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