Rest In Peace Congressional Budget Process

Josh Huder | June 6, 2022

Sometime in the last ten years the congressional budget process died. The precise moment is hard to pinpoint because it is not totally – just mostly — dead. But today, only a hollow version of the process still exists. Partisan majorities pass shell budgets to trigger reconciliation in the hopes that a filibuster-free process will create a clear glidepath for their party’s biggest ambitions. But legitimate attempts to orchestrate the tax and spending procedures the 1974 Budget Act envisioned are basically nonexistent, leaving the Act effectively stripped of its purpose. Perhaps surprisingly, this largely is not a case where polarization is the root cause. Rather, majorities’ internal politics have undermined the budget process, leaving routine oversight, governance, and the congressional appropriations process as collateral damage.

Our current process: imperfect origins through real breakdown:

The 1974 Budget Act was an ambitious effort. Prior to the Act, Congress did not have a way to balance its books. Tax committees taxed, spending committees spent, and the two did not coordinate. The Budget Act was an attempt to provide that coordination among Congress’s taxing, spending, and authorizing entities, as well as rein in President Nixon’s illegal impoundments. It also attempted to bring order to the congressional calendar. According to the law, budgets were to be adopted by April 15th and appropriations were to be enacted by September 30th. The Act moved the fiscal year from July 1 to October 1 to give Congress more time to enact annual appropriations bills that fund government operations.

However, like Congress’s earlier attempts to manage its budget, it had limited success. In 1921, political scientist Lindsey Rogers remarked, “The only purpose of a short session is to care for [appropriations bills] and Congress is fortunate if it is able to do this.” The process created in 1974 led to Congress passing all appropriations bills on schedule a handful of times, the last in FY1995. A long string of continuing resolutions and omnibus bills – telltale signs of tardiness and dereliction – litter the last two-plus decades of spending policy. But despite its struggle to pass appropriations bills, Congress at least tried to get the budget and spending gears moving each year.

That is, until about a decade ago. A series of fiscal cliffs, budget standoffs, and government shutdowns ushered in the era of sequestration and the Budget Control Act, which created budget caps for defense and nondefense spending, and which expired in FY2021. It was during this decade that Congress found a new way to fail. Rather than muddle through its tardy work like the old days, it simply ignores it. The last time the Senate attempted to outline discretionary spending was 2013. Since then, it has only initiated the budget process to trigger reconciliation. The House stuck it out slightly longer but it, too, has given up the pretense of officially starting the annual budget and appropriations cycle. Instead, Congress now budgets through an ad hoc, informal process that lacks a firm or even soft deadline to spur action.

The costs of budget process failure:

This failure has serious consequences. Without the adoption of a congressional budget, appropriators lack a dollar figure with which to begin writing their bills. Appropriators need a top-line discretionary budget number (a 302(a) in budget parlance) in order to divide it among the 12 subcommittees. The longer the delay, the less likely Congress is to pass appropriations on time. Instead, it almost certainly means spending bills will be negotiated out of the regular order and behind the closed doors of congressional leaders’ offices. Members wanting to debate, amend or even understand how spending decisions will affect their district find out only days, sometimes hours, before the final vote. But the worst effects fall on government agencies. Without timely appropriations new programs stall, priorities fail to receive the money necessary to execute their mandate, and money is wasted as agencies scramble to manage the fiscal uncertainty. A timely budget process was the lynchpin to smoother appropriations and government operation. Without it, the United States simply throws away money.

Finding the culprit:

While it is easy to blame polarization, the distance between the parties does not explain the death of the budget process. Partisan polarization is often the prime suspect in the demise of “regular” congressional processes, from committee protocols, to open floor amendments, and (quite possibly soon) the filibuster. But the budget process is different; it requires no minority input. The minority party cannot stop a concurrent budget resolution in the House or filibuster it in the Senate. It is majority-only legislation. In theory, polarization should actually make it easier to pass these measures. The more unified the party, the easier it is to marshal their members to action.

But that is not what has happened the last ten years. Instead, today the most unified majorities in congressional history (according to roll call votes) cannot agree on their budget visions or priorities. Rather than expose divisions between moderates and more ideologically-extreme factions in committee or on the floor, party leaders abandon the process before it even begins. As a result, the budget committees and chairs – Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) – have little to nothing to actually do. They, like the rest of the government, wait for the budget numbers to be handed to them. While party leaders have secured themselves an even more influential role over legislative negotiations, routine governing is ignored, oversight wanes, and member inclusion erodes. And unfortunately, there is no sign either the budget or appropriations processes will be revived any time soon.

Josh Huder is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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