Will a Two-Year Budget End Fiscal Fights?
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The Fiscal Times
February 12, 2014

News alert for Washington’s budget mavens:  While the spotlight was riveted on the House action Tuesday to raise the debt ceiling, the House Budget Committee was quietly endorsing a measure that eventually may produce a dramatic overhaul of the byzantine budget process.

With a bipartisan vote of 22 to 10, the committee approved a bill drafted by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) that would shift the budgeting process from an annual to a bi-annual affair. The committee also approved a companion bill, The Budget and Accounting Transparency Act of 2014, sponsored by Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ).

Related: End Beltway Brawls? Try Biennial Budgeting

Congress is awash with bills that never see the light of day or that at best get a favorable nod from a subcommittee or full committee. And the idea of trying to change decades-old budget procedures in a hidebound Congress seems far-fetched, especially in light of the huge partisan divide on Capitol Hill.

Last December’s bipartisan budget deal negotiated by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) raised an interesting question: If Congress could agree to a new two-year spending plan to break a vicious cycle of  budget and fiscal battles, why not use that success as a template for budget making going forward?

The current budget rules, last totally overhauled back in 1974, require an elaborate annual ritual beginning with the president submitting a budget plan for the coming fiscal year that invariably is declared “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill.

Then the House and Senate Budget Committees typically adopt grossly different blue prints that must be reconciled in conference, but often aren’t. Finally, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are given instructions on how much revenue they can divvy up into a dozen separate spending bills to fund government agencies and programs for the coming year.

Since 2001, Congress has successfully enacted only 13 spending bills on time, according to House figures. The situation is even worse in election years. In the past eight election years, Congress has failed to pass a budget 75 percent of the time.

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Under a biennial approach, Congress and the president would spend the first year hammering out their differences over a two-year spending and tax plan and then use the second year for oversight to make sure taxpayers’ money was being spent properly. In the event of emergencies or unanticipated expenses, Congress could tweak the two-year plan to add or reallocate the needed funds. 

“Washington is spending too much money, and the current budget process encourages Congress to spend even more,” Ryan said after his committee’s votes. “Right now, there’s simply too much waste and too little accountability.”

“Under these [two] reforms, Washington will have to be honest about the costs of its decisions, and Congress will be able to set priorities,” Ryan added. “We will spend less time spending money and more time holding Washington accountable.”

The biennial budget idea has been kicking around for years and has received a favorable nod from House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), other GOP leaders and a raft of government watchdog groups.

Related: A Two-Year Budget? GOP Sen. Thune Joins the Chorus

Last March, the Senate approved a non-binding amendment to its version of the fiscal 2014 budget resolution that would convert the current budget and appropriations system to a two-year cycle. That amendment – agreed to by a vote of 68 to 31 -- was sponsored by Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), a long-time proponent, and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

Meanwhile, in the House, Ribble attracted 136 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors, including Ryan and a small number of other committee chairmen and leadership members.

Ribble said Tuesday he was encouraged by the strong bipartisan vote for his measure in the Budget Committee, noting that members “put down their swords and genuinely discussed and debated the policy issue before them and agreed on this piece of legislation.”

But a vote in committee is one thing, getting it to the floor is another. “The Congressman’s going to be working on that in the coming days, weeks, and months,” explained an aide to Ribble. “No firm timetables have really been established yet, but he will continue discussing with his colleagues and the Budget Committee how best to continue this effort to bring legislation to the floor.”

G. William Hoagland, a senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Republican Senate Budget Committee staff director, recently told The Fiscal Times that biennial budgeting would offer a saner, more rational and efficient approach.

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“We’ve all recognized that we have de facto fallen into a two-year appropriations and budget process by recognizing what the Murray-Ryan budget agreement did back in December,” he said in an interview this week. 

But this idea has plenty of detractors – especially from members of the appropriations committee who prefer to have a say every year in how public funds are being spent. Only seven of the 29 Republican and Democratic members of the House Appropriations Committee have signed on to Ribble’s bill.

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.