A New Round of Budget Turmoil—Shut Up or Shutdown
Policy + Politics

A New Round of Budget Turmoil—Shut Up or Shutdown

REUTERS/Gary Cameron

As Congress moves towards its summer recess, the budget picture is its usual chaotic mess.

The House and Senate are in a tug-of-war over what to do with President Obama’s emergency request for $3.7 billion to deal with the humanitarian crisis along the Southwest border.

Congress must either pass a raft of fiscal 2015 spending bills or approve stopgap-spending authority before the end of the fiscal year, September 30, or face the threat of another government shutdown. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is threatening to block action unless Congress accepts his amendments to protect the coal industry from new Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

Related: Washington Back on Warpath This Summer Over Spending

This wasn’t exactly the way things were scripted to go after Congress approved a two-year budget deal last December that was negotiated by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WI).  

In the wake of last fall’s 16-day government shutdown, this political odd couple of the conservative Ryan and liberal Murray agreed to temporarily suspend the sequester and establish the same top line budget figures of $2.03 trillion over the next two years for the two chambers.

As The Washington Post noted, the two-year agreement “set up the chance for the two chambers to work through the regular procedures of drawing up legislation in committee, passing it and then having House-Senate conference committees craft a final compromise.”

Once the new budget was agreed to, the task of carving up the available funds into a dozen separate appropriations bills for the various agencies and programs seemed like a piece of cake. It was the closest the Congress has come to biennial budgeting – that is, adopting a spending blue print over a two-year period.

Related: End Beltway Brawls? Try Biennial Budgeting

Instead of swift negotiations and passage of the spending bills by the House and Senate, the appropriations process has been bogged down again by partisan gridlock and unanticipated demands – including the need to deal with the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America who have crossed the border into the U.S.  in the past year or two.

In a way, the latest spending upheaval is a cautionary tale for good government advocates and reformists who hope to move from annual to a biennial budget making.

The current budget rules were last completely overhauled back in 1974. They 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.

The process is messy in both trying to adopt an annual blue print and then converting it into 13 separate appropriations bills; the payoff is often more frustration than solid results.  

Related: CBO Warns Unchecked Entitlement Spending Is ‘Unsustainable’

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.

That’s why Congress agreed to try a once-every-two year approach for drafting and passing a budget last year. Under this biennial procedure that is still fairly common among state governments, 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.

 “If you’re spending all your time appropriating and budgeting, you’re not able to free up members’ time and attention to deal with the underlying authorization and oversight process,” Bill Hoagland, a budget expert and vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, told The Fiscal Times earlier this year.

Related: Obamacare Boosted Health Care Spending — and GDP

Last year, 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, Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) introduced a similar measure, The Biennial Budgeting and Enhanced Oversight Act. Last February, the House Budget Committee approved Ribble’s biennial budgeting bill, 22 to 10, with Democrats joining Republicans to push it through. The House Rules Committee later conducted a hearing that drew considerable bipartisan support.

Late last week, House and Senate advocates of biennial budgeting sent a letter to Shaun Donovan, President Obama’s newly appointed Director of the Office of Management and Budget, seeking administration interest.

“We believe biennial budgeting would allow Congress to work on a more manageable budget and appropriation schedule while also providing agencies more time to plan and implement the programs that Congress authorizes,” the letter stated.

During Donovan’s recent Senate confirmation hearing, the former housing secretary said, “I think biennial budgeting is an idea worth exploring further,” although he added that there are some downsides to that approach.

Related: Will a Two-Year Budget End Fiscal Fights?

One of those problems is that it’s impossible to write a two-year budget that anticipates everything that might happen. Unforeseen hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters regularly force Congress to revise its spending blue print, as will the current immigration crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

A two-year spending bill likely would have to be frequently revised or tweaked to address unexpected major spending.

“I think there are some real reasonable questions about whether it might require more supplementals [emergency spending bills] or others,” Donovan said. “But as I said, I think it’s an idea worth exploring.”

J. Keith Kennedy, a former Republican staff director of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says that biennial budgeting is a bad idea “because the annual appropriations process --when you make it work -- is the most rigorous way for the Congress to exert its influence over the actions of the executive branch.”

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