Budget delays win Senate supporters for biennial process

The idea of replacing the annual, oft-delayed budget process with a two-year system is picking up powerful supporters in the Senate and the Obama administration.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a longtime opponent of shifting to a biennial budget, said Thursday that his “attitude is changing very dramatically” because of lawmakers’ recent budget failures.

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This year, neither chamber of Congress held floor votes on a budget resolution, which sets spending caps for the following year and lays out how the majority will tackle deficits in years beyond. While Congress has now failed to pass a budget in five of the past seven election years, 2010 was the first year that Congress failed to bring a budget to the floor since the current budget rules were enacted in 1974.

Congress is also having a hard time passing the annual appropriations bills to fund the government in fiscal 2011. Senior appropriators have said it's likely none of the dozen spending bills will be cleared for President Obama’s signature before the fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

Conrad, who sought to strengthen the current budget system in the past, said Thursday he would be happy to work with senators to “put in place an effective plan” for reforms.

“It has now become the rule rather than the exception that we don’t have a budget,” he said. “That is not a healthy thing, and it may well require that we move to a form of biennial budgeting so we can assure there is a budget blueprint in place.”

Conrad made the remarks during a Senate Budget Committee hearing on the nomination of Jacob Lew to be the next White House budget director.

Lew himself is a backer of biennial budgets, pushing for that reform during his first stint as a White House budget director in the Clinton administration. Lew said Thursday that the two-year system is “a good idea.” The one-year budget process gives both the administration and Congress little time to focus on implementing programs, said Lew, whose nomination has received bipartisan support.

Any push to reform the budget may get pushback from Democratic leaders.

“I just don’t think there’s much chance it’s going to happen,” said Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.), the front-runner to succeed retiring Rep. David Obey (Wis.) as the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

“There’d have to be a lot of support from leadership,” he added. “It’s the first time I’ve heard it discussed. Jack Lew is a very good person, someone I’ve worked with over the years, but I don’t sense a lot of enthusiasm up here.”

House Democratic skeptics of a biennial budget 10 years ago, the last time Lew pushed the idea, said that budget problems had little to do with the yearly process and that a two-year process would let lawmakers push back decisions they would normally make annually.

A number of prominent Republicans in Congress have recently called for a biennial budget system.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), a member of GOP leadership, unveiled a plan in July that would have Congress pass the annual appropriations bills during even-numbered years and conduct oversight of federal spending in the years between. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, has been pushing for two-year budgets since 2003. Both Thune's and Ryan’s plans would also give more power to the president to rescind spending and put binding caps on discretionary spending.

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