Opinion: Pick Up Your Forks. It’s Time for Another Dinner Table Bargain

Members of the Budget and Appropriations Process Reform Committee should follow the examples of Jefferson, Madison

If Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton — shown here in Constantino Brumidi’s 1872 painting — were able to hash out an agreement over dinner, so can the members of the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, Hoagland writes. (Courtesy the Architect of the Capitol)

The table is set. The invitations have been sent. The 16 Senate and House members of the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform have accepted. Now it is time for these 16 diners to sit down and choose from a long menu of options for reforming the broken budget and appropriation procedure that the budget process chefs have prepared over the years.

Importantly, these diners should not be cooking up new proposals according to their own individual tastes, but instead should focus on selecting three or four key menu items that have been proposed by some of their predecessors.

This is not the first time that budget process chefs — including some of the 16 at the current table — have offered tasty entrees to reform the congressional budgeting and appropriating process. But so far, a successful recipe acceptable to Congress has been elusive.

The budget process chefs know that all 16 diners have varying gastronomical desires, so before they order, it is worth reflecting for a moment on how we got here.

The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 was forged in a time of crisis. President Richard Nixon’s impoundment of authorized and appropriated monies set off a constitutional firestorm. Who really controlled the power of the purse? An “imperial president” saw a fragmented, discombobulated congressional spending and revenue process with no clear order or fiscal discipline. He determined that only the executive branch could create that discipline.

Executive decisions

Embarrassed that the president had a valid point, a special congressional panel — the Joint Study Committee on Budget Control — offered up a set of reforms which later became the new budget law designed for Congress to take back its Article I responsibilities.

The reforms established clear procedures for when the executive chooses to impound authorized and appropriated funds. Additionally, more structural changes were made through the creation of the Congressional Budget Office and two new Budget committees — one each in the House and the Senate — charged with developing a fiscal blueprint early in every session of Congress to guide the spending and revenue decisions and create a clear, coherent fiscal plan.

President Nixon, weakened by Watergate, signed this proposal into law shortly before departing the White House in disgrace.

Over the last 40-plus years, the “new” budget process functioned pretty much as designed by restoring Congress’ constitutional responsibilities on spending and revenue. Along the way, however, the arteries in the process began to calcify as amendments and rules added additional complexity.

Congress also created a process to force partisan outcomes (e.g., balanced budgets, spending caps, pay-go) when political compromise to address the country’s growing fiscal challenges was not possible.

Specials of the day

So what’s on today’s menu of reforms to consider? To finish the meal on time (Nov. 30, when the select committee is required to report), we recommend that rather than everyone selecting their own palate-pleasing entrée, there should be only three courses.

First, restore the Budget committees as leadership committees. Originally, the Budget panels represented the key leadership of the major spending and revenue committees. In the Senate, for example, the chairs and ranking members of Finance, Defense, Appropriations, Banking, HELP and Commerce would be permanent members of the Budget Committee, while other panel chairs would rotate in when their issue had a major authorization. This would reclassify under Senate rules the current Budget Committee status from “B” to “Super A,” and would link budget policies developed by Congress with the major committees responsible for their implementation.

Second, it’s time to recognize that the current annual budget and appropriations cycle weakens the authorizing committees’ responsibilities. At present, there appears to be bipartisan appetite for a biennial budget cycle. Congress could adopt two-year budget and appropriations bills in the first session, freeing up time in the second session to focus on reauthorizations. Lawmakers have already begun testing a version of this by adjusting current spending caps by two years.

Third, for dessert, the chef recommends a refreshing relief from having to periodically vote to raise the country’s statutory borrowing limit. Once a biennial budget blueprint is set with specified borrowing limits, an automatic adjustment to the debt limit would result.

Finally, as a graceful accompaniment to lift the bipartisan spirit, the sommelier recommends a robust red wine, also suitable for stiffening the political spine.

The best choice comes from the vineyards of James Madison or Thomas Jefferson, who participated in the original “dinner party” of 1790, demonstrating that compromise is essential to the functioning of a democratic government.

G. William Hoagland is a BPC senior vice president, helping to direct and manage fiscal, health, and economic policy analyses. He previously served as vice president of public policy for CIGNA Corporation, staff director at the Senate Budget Committee, and director of budget and appropriations in the office of former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Website | Twitter | Facebook

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