Economy & Budget

Congress’s budget process broken because it’s ignored

After trying private negotiations, bipartisan commissions, informal “gangs” and a supercommittee, the search for a long-term federal fiscal plan has come full circle back to where it started — regular order under the budget process in Congress.

Or has it?

{mosads}We hope it has, because regular order ensures that every member of Congress gets to participate in the final form of any fiscal agreement, grand or otherwise.

Regular order simply means that the House and Senate pass budget resolutions, as they have done, go to conference on those budget plans — including any reconciliation instructions to committees — and negotiate a path forward that then sets the direction for committees to begin filling in the details of the agreement.

If reconciliation instructions to the various tax and direct spending committees emerge from conference, then the instructed committees of the House and Senate shape legislation within their jurisdictions in order to achieve the revenue increases or spending reductions required by those instructions. The reconciled committees pass on their actual changes in law to the Budget committees, which bundle them up into a reconciliation bill. The reconciliation bill then heads to the House and Senate floor for up-or-down votes, then to conference and back to the House and Senate floors for final passage of a reconciliation bill conference report.

The president then signs the bill, and at least in theory, deficits begin to drop.

This all started in 1981 and had become old hat to some members of Congress. That is, until recent years, in which Congress has failed to use regular order and to enact the basic budget document for the upcoming fiscal year.

Those failures have led to debt-ceiling crises, “fiscal cliffs,” threats of government shutdowns, complex appropriations negotiations and other sorts of chaotic melodrama — all of which has confused and angered the general public and left Congress widely demeaned.

Now, both the House and Senate have passed budget resolutions with reconciliation instructions. Regular order has started, but will it continue?

The critical question is very simple: will the House and Senate appoint conferees so that negotiations on a fiscal 2014 budget can start? 

Media reports and informal discussions with congressional staff indicate hesitancy in both the House and Senate. Will a conference be held to get a budget agreement? Will reconciliation even get a chance to begin? Many analysts believe reaching any conference agreements will be impossible.

Ultimately, we must enact changes to preserve, adjust and strengthen the major entitlement programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. We must also enact fundamental tax reform that raises revenues by cutting back on the trillion dollars of annual tax breaks that are essentially government subsides run through the tax code. 

The regular budget process is designed to resolve such conflicting priorities. It is broken because it is ignored. That can change this year, if congressional leaders have the nerve to see it through.

Without reconciliation, we doubt that a significant deficit-reduction bill can emerge from Congress.

Without the protections of time limitations and privileged parliamentary status that reconciliation provides, how will real tax reform or re-structuring of entitlements ever pass?

So, while the House and Senate have passed separate budget resolutions, and done so before April 15, as required by law, not a single dime has been cut from future deficits by those resolutions.

This is a critical time for the House and Senate, as well as the president.

The president has submitted his own budget plan for next year. He should urge Congress to continue its work under its own budget process in order to get an agreement that reduces the increasing debt placed on the American public.

House and Senate leadership should appoint conferees as soon as possible to negotiate a compromise budget plan and demand that reconciliation instructions emerge from that conference.

If leadership fails again, if the can gets booted down the road once more, then the nation’s fiscal crisis deepens. It will mean one more year that policymakers in Washington have failed to do the basics — produce a budget, enforce that budget and put America on a sound long-term fiscal path.

Domenici is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Nunn serves as co-chairman of The Concord Coalition. 


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