House Move Could Renew Debate on Broken Budget Process

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By Jonathan Nicholson

April 14 — The House may be on the verge of doing something never done since the advent of the modern congressional budget process in the mid-1970s. But Washington budget hands say it would only be another blow to the shaky budget process, if not necessarily a new low.

At issue is whether the House will act on annual government spending bills without adopting a budget resolution beforehand or, as has been the case in years when a resolution could not win approval, at least “deeming” one adopted in order to enforce the budget numbers on the floor. Unlike the Senate, the majority party in the House holds almost all the levers of power and thus the party in control has never failed to take one of those two paths—a budget or a “deemer”—before.

But April 13, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) raised the prospect House Republicans could forgo those options and start taking up funding bills after May 15 without a budget outline of any sort. That has not happened since the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 (Pub. L. No. 93-344) put in place the current system, where the House and Senate are to jointly agree on a budget outline by April 15, with the details to be filled in by spending and revenue bills later in the year. After May 15, though, the House is allowed to take up appropriations bills on the House floor, whether a budget has been adopted or not.

“We're still having ongoing conversations with our members on that front. We're keeping all options open. We're not foreclosing any options, but you know me, I want to pass a budget,” Ryan said.

‘Dirt on the Casket.'

Ryan has said since he took over as the top Republican after the ouster of Ohio Republican John Boehner as speaker that he wants to return to regular legislative order. Asked if turning to appropriations bills without either a budget or deemer in place was a possibility, Ryan said, “You know the rules. You know the rules very well. We know the rules.”

While allowed, budget experts said, such a move would mark another stumble in an already battered budget process that saw 2015's House-Senate budget resolution the first adopted since 2009 and only the fifth in the last 12 years.

One House Democratic aide said allowing appropriations to move without passing at least a deemer would further erode the budget process, effectively “throwing dirt on the casket.”

“If their leadership does choose to go through without a budget or deemer, with the only backstop enforcement being the budget deal that the Freedom Caucus considers illegitimate at best, they really are abandoning 40-plus years of budget enforcement history and going an entirely new direction with no precedent or guidance,” the aide said.

Other experts said it would mark another setback in a long line of reversals for the process. However, they said the agreement in 2015 setting the limit on discretionary spending for the 2016 and 2017 budget years made the budget less urgent this year.

“The existence of a discretionary spending limit for fiscal year 2017 that was negotiated last year is a mitigating factor that makes this year somewhat unique,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Having said that, the failure to pass a budget resolution is another step in the breakdown of the budget process. It contributes to a perception that the budget resolution is irrelevant, which weakens the ability to use it as a tool to implement fiscal discipline.”

Similarly, Bill Hoagland, a Republican former Senate budget staffer who serves as senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said it would be worse if there were no limits on discretionary spending and the appropriations bills moved forward without a budget being adopted or deemed in force.

Originally, Twice-a-Year Budgets

“The fact that we had an uptick last year and downtick this year doesn't mean that the process is totally dead,” Hoagland said. “This, if anything, I would argue, is highlighting why biennial budgeting and appropriating should be the wave of the future for getting budgets done on Capitol Hill.”

Still, moving appropriations without a budget or a deemer in place would also be a further move away from how the process was designed to work under the 41-year-old Congressional Budget Act. Originally, the House and Senate were to take up budget resolutions individually and hammer out a compromise resolution between them. That was supposed to happen not once, but twice a year, with the latter resolution being a mid-course correction taking into account changes in revenues or spending since the first was adopted. That lasted until the early 1980s, after which only one resolution was adopted annually.

Yet, Congress continued to adopt budget resolutions every year until 1998, when the first deemer was used after the Republican-held House and Senate could not agree on a conference report budget. In 2002, with congressional control split between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate, the House adopted a deemer while the Senate only adopted a resolution providing for pay-as-you-go rules to be extended and encouraging action on appropriations bills.

Then in 2010, for the first time, neither the House nor the Senate considered a budget on their respective floors, as Democratic leaders in both chambers hoped to insulate their members from politically tough votes.

There have been other signs of deterioration in the process. Until the presidency of Barack Obama, the White House missing the statutory deadline to send Congress its budget proposal—due on the first Monday in February—was a rarity. The Obama White House, though, has missed the deadline far more times than it has met it in its eight years in office.

Biennial a Solution?

This year, Democrats were upset when Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees declined to have Shaun Donovan, the White House's director of the Office of Management and Budget, appear before either committee to testify and take questions about the administration's proposals. It was the first time in recent memory the administration's budget point person did not appear before the committees charged with jurisdiction over federal budget issues.

While there is bipartisan agreement the current system is broken, there is disagreement over how best to fix it and on whose shoulders responsibility lies for the breakdown.

Some lawmakers, like Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, would like to see the budget process moved to a biennial one. They cite the trend in recent years of passing two-year agreements on discretionary spending limits—usually a main incentive for lawmakers to pass a budget—as showing a de facto acceptance of the idea.

But there are many other issues than simply timing. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has said the question of biennial budgeting should be dealt with in a broader overhaul of the process he hopes to work out with Enzi.

MacGuineas's Committee for a Responsible Budget issued a 14-point plan April 14 to revise the annual congressional budget resolution process, including changing it from basically an agreement between the House and Senate to a binding law signed by the president, like 2013 and 2015 fiscal deals.

‘We Have Met the Enemy.'

As for why the process has fallen apart, opinions differ.

“There is plenty of blame to go around, from the failure of previous Congresses under both parties to pass a budget resolution conference report to the passage of budget resolutions with assumptions about mandatory spending cuts and revenue levels that were ignored,” MacGuineas said.

Asked whom he blamed, Ryan, who helmed the House Budget Committee before becoming speaker, said, “The authors in 1974, I suppose.”

“I believe that the '74 Budget Act needs to be overhauled. I think the current budget process is basically stacked in favor of more taxing and more spending and bigger government,” he said. “The challenge, though, is you have to have a House and a Senate and a president going all the way to sign these things into law. And we have not had that lined up well enough.”

Hoagland, the Bipartisan Policy Center vice president, said the fault was bipartisan. “A pox on both houses, and the White House,” he said. Republicans unwilling to look at revenues and Democrats unwilling to consider entitlement program changes, as well as a president reluctant to engage Congress, have all contributed to the problem, he said.

“We're all to blame,” Hoagland said, citing a line made famous by Pogo, a cartoon character created by Walt Kelly: “ ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.' ”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com.

For More Information

The CRFB report on the budget resolution can be found at http://src.bna.com/d9i.