America, our leaders have said, is a shining city upon a hill, a global beacon of democratic governance. But at times in the last four decades we haven’t lived up to that vision—too often, our lights flicker when Congress tries to deal with its most basic responsibility: the federal budget.
Just last month the government shut down. Twice. In 2013, the government shut down for more than two weeks. Since 1976, our government has shut down twenty times, and we’ve seen near-shut downs too numerous to count. The sad rhythm of budget fights is predictable: news networks deploy regular countdown clocks and talking heads spend more time determining the political winners and losers than discussing the actual effects of the shutdown. The real-world costs are numerous and erosion of trust in our government should be of little surprise.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In an effort to bring stability to the budget process and create conditions that would allow our government to return to regular order, an ideologically diverse group of 23 stakeholders have developed a set of creative, nonpartisan reform proposals. In a process convened by Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, a diverse “committee” of strange bedfellows—budget experts and advocates from organizations like the National Taxpayers Union, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Association of American Universities, United Way, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars—came together to craft specific solutions and a path forward. Generally, there isn’t much we all agree on. But we all want our government to function properly and fixing the budget process is an important step in achieving this goal.
To that end, after months of deliberation and advice from outside experts, we have developed five key proposals that will help prevent future government shutdowns, reduce budget uncertainty, improve fiscal planning, and restore faith in our government.
First, the budget process should be pegged to natural political cycles: our elections. To better align with the will of the electorate, Congress and the White House should quickly agree to one budget plan per Congress. We should also align the debt limit with that agreement to avoid potentially catastrophic crises, like defaulting on our debt.
Second, Americans must be able to see and understand the fiscal state of the nation for themselves. Every four years, in conjunction with the presidential election, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) should create a report on America’s fiscal state in plain language to encourage informed debate.
Third, this analysis should be supplemented by regular reviews of related federal programs that involve long-term or inter-generational funding commitments. This information would be shared with the budget committees and the public.
Fourth, we need to ensure critical decision makers are at the table and have high-quality, independent information to make hard choices. The membership of the Budget committees should be changed to include the chair and ranking members of the other committees that write the bills that move budget decisions to action.
Finally, the agencies that support Congress, mainly CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation, must have sufficient resources to remain strong and stable institutions providing Congress with independent and reliable information.
For almost two decades, our budget process has failed us. Even with single-party control of the White House and Congress, Washington has struggled to make orderly and timely decisions about revenue and spending. The appropriations process for the current fiscal year is still incomplete and the budget was not adopted until well after the fiscal year began. This is not only disruptive for the military and other federal agencies, but also to state and local governments, industry, education, nonprofits and other sectors. The cost of continued failure hurts everybody, particularly the American public.
We’re encouraged that the recent budget agreement created a bipartisan congressional committee tasked with studying the budget process and offering recommendations to fix it. We urge them to consider our consensus recommendations as a starting place. Each of us involved in developing these recommendations stands ready to work with Congress to help fix this broken process.
While reforming the budget process alone cannot fix all the problems facing the country, it would go a long way toward restoring the public’s trust in our government, so long as Congress follows through. Our recommendations, if adopted, will help keep America’s lights on: A beacon of democracy, steadfast and uninterrupted.
Neil Bradley is the Executive Vice President at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Emily Holubowich is the Executive Director at the Coalition for Health Funding.