Fixing the budget process, one step at a time
© Greg Nash

We’re a progressive and a conservative who don’t agree on much. While we have genuine policy disagreements on most issues of substance, we do agree that the federal budget process is broken and the dysfunction is a disservice to our country – especially to Americans who don’t often have a voice in Washington.

Thankfully, lawmakers have a chance to fix it.

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While it does not receive the same attention as other pressing national concerns, the broken budget process has wide-ranging, pernicious effects. Fiscal brinksmanship wastes taxpayer dollars, hurts virtually every constituency the federal government touches, and erodes public trust in institutions. Congress last completed the budget process on time – passing all appropriations bills prior to the beginning of the fiscal year – in 1997, more than 20 years ago.

We must move away from the budget chaos that has sadly become the new normal, where Congress routinely waits until the last minute before taking budgetary action. Congress must take the time to think, to craft, and to discuss bills that move our country forward, no matter who is in the majority. Governing is hard work and details matter. Legislating-by-deadline is not an effective way to run a country – Congress shouldn’t rely on self-imposed crises and last-minute negotiations to set the spending priorities for our nation.

The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform is a real opportunity to reform the process. Established by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, this panel is tasked with identifying and recommending reforms to how budgeting and appropriations are conducted. By November, the committee must propose a legislative fix to the budget process that both parties agree on—a tall order, these days, but one we believe is achievable.

It is important that the committee stay true to its task by focusing on process reforms, rather than attempt to influence the substance of future spending decisions. The rules of the committee mandate a bipartisan agreement, meaning the body already has a narrow margin on which to build success, even without policy changes on the table. Likewise, the committee’s proposal must pass both houses and then be signed into law. If the committee devolves into a discussion of policy instead of process, it is doomed to fail.

Both of us have participated in the Convergence Building a Better Budget Process (“B3P”) project, a year-long effort that brought together a group of 23 leaders from across the ideological spectrum to build consensus solutions to improve the budget process. We learned quickly that focusing on policy changes would prevent any real progress on process changes. And while there are process reforms that would favor our preferred substantive outcomes, for B3P to be successful, we needed to stick to truly policy neutral changes.

The Building a Better Budget Process developed a range of proposals to address key problems. Among our solutions are replacing the annual budget resolution with a Budget Action Plan that sets discretionary spending levels for two years; providing regular performance reviews of government programs grouped by “budget portfolios;” properly supporting and strengthening institutions such as the Congressional Budget Office so they can continue to provide independent and reliable information; strengthening the role of the Budget committees; and, a Fiscal State of the Nation Report, published every four years to make the federal budget more accessible to the American public. These targeted reforms will not fix all the problems with the current process, but they represent concrete, positive steps that will improve its functioning.

Earlier this year we issued a report with our findings and recommendations and are pleased that the committee may use our experience as a guidepost.

On May 9, our B3P colleagues Matt Owens and Emily Holubowich testified before the committee and delivered the B3P recommendations. We believe these recommendations offer Congress a credible, non-partisan pathway forward.

Process is not sexy. It does not grab headlines, trend on Twitter, or warrant more than a passing mention in an article. But it can serve as the foundation of good policymaking. We urge the committee to take their targeted mandate for process reform seriously and propose meaningful changes that can make a lasting difference. A better budget process means a government better able to deliver a stable, secure future for our country.

Sam Berger is the senior adviser at the Center for American Progress and Pete Sepp is President of the National Taxpayers Union.