By Bob Cusack and Erik Wasson - 06/07/11 10:00 AM EDT
Republican leaders are considering asking the White House to back a significant reform of the federal budget process in exchange for raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
The GOP wish list for hiking the debt ceiling will be long, and Republican sources contend that overhauling the annual appropriations process is in the mix.
Supporters say passing a two-year budget would allow Congress to focus more on oversight issues instead of constantly trying to hit spending deadlines, many of which aren’t met.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has previously voted for a biennial budget bill, has emphasized the need for structural spending reforms when discussing the debt-limit talks. He has declined, however, to go into specifics.
Pressed on the issue last week, Boehner said, “I think there needs to be real review of the entire budget process, and I’ll probably have more to say on that later.”
During a high-profile speech last month in New York, Boehner said it would be “irresponsible” to raise the debt ceiling without simultaneously taking dramatic steps to reduce spending and reform the budget process.”
For years, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) has been seeking to pass legislation calling for biennial budgets.
He told The Hill late last week that he has urged “elected leadership officials” to push the matter in debt-ceiling discussions. Dreier said the legislation he and others are touting is “the most bipartisan budget reform” plan in Congress.
Dreier’s bill has 38 co-sponsors, including Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Allen West (R-Fla.).
The Senate companion measure, crafted by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), has 30 co-sponsors, including Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and John Thune (R-S.D.).
If Boehner calls for President Obama to back this budget reform, it would be seen as another attempt to limit the power of appropriators. Boehner has long battled appropriators over earmarks, triumphing in that battle by passing a ban on lawmaker pet projects that is in effect for the entire 112th Congress.
Dreier acknowledged that some appropriators, most notably Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), are not fans of his bill. However, former Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) is a co-sponsor, Dreier noted.
As The Hill first reported last month, House Republicans have abandoned a campaign proposal by Boehner to draft spending bills by agency instead of lumping Cabinet departments together in bulky appropriations measures.
While that proposal was deemed unworkable, biennial budgeting would fit well into the GOP’s budget-cutting message.
Backers of the bill say it would allow Congress to spend every other year focusing on oversight. They contend lawmakers are consistently playing catch-up on spending bills, leading to large omnibus measures at the end of the year, which become unmanageable.
Many appropriators remain firmly against the idea, which would cut their workload — and authority.
“All the strides the new Republican majority has made toward greater fiscal responsibility would be thrown out the window with biennial budgeting,” an Appropriations panel aide said Monday. “Not only would the practice undermine the flexibility and responsibility of Congress to adequately and carefully fund the entire federal government in a timely manner, but it would also give bureaucratic federal agencies a dangerously long leash with which to operate.”
The staffer added, “It is clear that the default position of this administration is to ‘spend more,’ so why would Congress give them more opportunity and money to do so — especially in a time of fiscal crisis?”
This year the House Appropriations Committee has unveiled a plan to have all 12 of the appropriations bills though the committee by August recess, with nine of them approved by the full House by that time.
Bob Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, favors biennial budgeting because it could increase oversight into overlooked federal operations, allowing Congress to better ferret out waste.
However, he said a counterargument could be made that more spending would end up packaged into supplemental appropriations bills in the off years, and these bills often receive little scrutiny.
Leadership aides did not respond to requests for comment, and budget experts said that more focus has been on budget caps than on the Dreier proposal.
Still, budget experts claim that there is more momentum this year for the idea than ever before.
“The system is so totally broken. There is no budget process right now,” Bixby said.
Maya MacGuineas of the New America Foundation said she has long been in favor of biennial budgeting. MacGuineas has worked closely with the Gang of Six — now Gang of Five — senators looking for a comprehensive deficit solution.
“There is more momentum for biennial budgeting than I have seen in the recent past, which is good, but still, process changes like this will never fix our fiscal problem, and we should be focusing our energy first and foremost on putting in place a large, multiyear deficit-reduction plan,” she said.
Meanwhile, Dreier indicated he is still working on rallying support for his bill, telling The Hill with a smile, “Keep asking about this.”