Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform

Charles Cooper

The challenges before this committee are enormous. The problems have built up over decades – from government shutdowns and a parade of continuing resolutions to massive deficits and budget breakdowns.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 was signed into law (PL 115-123) by President Trump on February 8, 2018. Most people know this bill for ending the most recent government shutdown, which overshadowed many of the legislation’s biggest provisions — increasing budget caps, extending the debt ceiling, providing $90 billion in disaster relief, and authorizing the Children’s Healthcare Insurance Program (CHIP) for 10 years.

But one provision that didn’t really show up on anyone’s radar was the creation of the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, which consists of eight Representatives and eight Senators – equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.

The committee was launched as an effort to resolve Congress’ long history of a broken spending process, which has funded the federal government on time only four times in the last 44 years and has passed only seven budgets in the past 15 years. It is a problem that should be resolved, especially given the risk uncertainty in government spending has brought to our federal programs, as well as our economy.

Providing a solution by November 30th (the panel’s statutory deadline to send one to Congress) will be a difficult goal to achieve, to say the least.

There are several solutions I would expect to be considered once the committee begins its work:

Biennial Budgeting: Twenty states use biennial budgeting – the process of crafting a budget every two years. Some in Congress have long championed biennial budgeting, but others have said it doesn’t provide the flexibility needed to adjust to shifts that occur annually.

Budget Having the Force of Law: Some may argue for the budget to have the force of law (through a joint resolution), which would trigger automatic spending reductions if the budget was not adhered to.

Reform Around Emergency Funds: Natural disasters and other emergencies are handled in many different ways, none of which are particularly consistent or popular among policymakers. Some believe that emergency spending is abused and others believe that there isn’t enough certainty around it. Proposals could vary widely, from creating additional limitations on emergency spending to establishing an emergency fund within the budget to address unforeseen emergencies.

Shutdown Avoidance: Legislation has been introduced to trigger an automatic continuing resolution at current spending levels to avoid government shutdowns. Since continuing resolutions are increasingly unpopular and some see the threat of government shutdowns as the driving force in bringing negotiators to the table, its unclear if such a proposal would have any traction.

Earmarks: There has been an increase in discussion in Congress about bringing back earmarks (congressionally-directed spending) by both Republicans and Democrats. The House Rules Committee recently held a hearing on the topic. Not everyone shares the opinion that earmarks could be a solution to our budget and appropriations process problems and they continue to carry some political risk for policymakers. But, the conversation has continued to evolve and the current discussion is the most serious reexamination of them since they were eliminated.

Strengthen Budget Enforcement: Waiving budget “points of order” have become somewhat routine. Along with many other procedural reforms, the committee could consider a super-majority threshold to pass waivers on expensive proposals that would violate the budget.

Empower Authorizers: Authorizers have long been frustrated with their lack of influence within the appropriations process, especially as it relates to funding programs that have yet to be authorized. The committee could ensure authorizers play a larger role in determining how programs under their jurisdiction are funded.

The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform will be holding its first meeting in the comings days. Without question, the committee has its hands full. They are approaching challenges that share bipartisan concern and have contributed greatly to some of Congress’ weakest moments (and their low approval ratings).

While some changes around the edges are possible, the fundamental disagreements will center around the constant tug of war between those that believe Congress is spending too much and those that believe Congress is spending too little. The process reforms most often proposed are a pathway to support of one of those positions. It’s hard to imagine a bipartisan committee will find common ground on those issues by the end of the year, especially with an election on the horizon.

However, the spending process has become convoluted and the rules and process established are, too often, ignored. Success for this committee will be finding bipartisan agreement on solutions that reduce the “governing by crises” that always surrounds the appropriations process and provides more incentive to advance budgets and spending bills in a timely manner. If they can find agreement on a handful of reforms, the lame-duck session of Congress would be a great venue to move reforms prior to the next Congress.