How Congress Stealthily Shifted to a Two-Year Budget Process
Policy + Politics

How Congress Stealthily Shifted to a Two-Year Budget Process

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

For decades, proposals for shifting the cumbersome, often exasperating congressional budget process from once a year to once every two years were a legislative pipe dream.

Although the concept of agreeing on the broad framework for spending and taxation one year and then fine tuning the budget in the second year made perfect sense to budget experts and lawmakers, it regularly ran afoul of entrenched interests within the Budget and Appropriations  committees who didn’t want to relinquish any power.

Now, as Congress prepares to approve the second two-year budget and debt ceiling plan, congressional leaders and the White House have embraced biennial budgeting – much to the delight of just about everyone except many in the House Freedom Caucus and the leaders of conservative outside groups.

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“De facto, we have moved to a two-year budgeting process here by setting these spending caps on a two-year basis,” G. William Hoagland, a senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Republican Senate Budget Committee staff director, said in an interview on Wednesday. “So let’s just accept the fact that that’s the way we’re going to do budgeting and appropriating in the future.”

Retiring House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and White House officials quietly negotiated a two-year budget deal unveiled late Monday that would increase federal spending on defense and domestic programs by $80 billion, increase the Treasury’s borrowing authority through March 2017, block cuts in Social Security Disability Insurance payments and a stiff 50 percent increase in Medicare Part B premiums for millions of seniors.

The agreement – while far from perfect – satisfied many conservative Republicans by providing  more funding for defense and achieving some entitlement savings, and pleased the White House by boosting domestic spending by an equal amount. The deal also calls for an additional $32 billion over the next two years for U.S. military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The agreement should clear the House today and the Senate no later than early next week.

Related: Boehner’s Last Stand — A Budget Deal That Raises the Debt Ceiling

President Obama hailed the budget deal during a speech in Chicago yesterday, saying, “It allows us to plan for the future.” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told Politico, “This would take away a very big potential negative and remove a serious threat at a time that the economy feels a little fragile.”

This desire for more certainty and dependability in the budget process is at the crux of the long-term but unsuccessful drive for a move to a two-year budget process, much like the one that has been used over the years by many states.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Boehner’s heir apparent, spoke for many conservatives declaring that the closed-door, secretive process for reaching the budget agreement “stinks” and needs to be reformed. Yet Ryan announced earlier today that he would vote for the agreement. Two years ago, Ryan, then chair of the House Budget Committee, sat behind closed doors with then-Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray and negotiated another two-year budget deal very similar to the one now before Congress that suspended the sequester and boosted spending for defense and domestic programs.