If you find yourself in a ditch … fix the budget
© Greg Nash

“The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.”

--Benjamin Franklin

No one will defend the current federal budget process. All agree it is broken. With the retirement of baby boomers, controlling federal deficits in the next few years will be more difficult than ever. Current budget practices are unsustainable.

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And the annual budget process for funding our federal government seems to get harder each year. From last September through March, Congress had to pass five continuing resolutions to keep the government from shutting down. Each of these had to include additional “sweeteners” that increased the deficit. One added $25 billion in tax provisions just to keep the government open for another 17 days. The other four added another $140 billion in spending beyond previously agreed levels.

Clearly something must change. Congress has set up a select committee to analyze the budget appropriations process and report back by Nov. 30. We believe there is a bipartisan path forward. Here are eleven ideas the committee should consider:

Biennial Budgeting. Require a two year budget resolution (due in odd numbered years) and two year appropriations bills (due in odd numbered years); this will allow Congress to focus on oversight and authorizing activities during election-shortened years.

No more Continuing Resolutions. Default mechanisms should be established to extend but freeze spending levels if there is a failure to pass a budget resolution or appropriations bills on time.

No gaming of economic assumptions. Budget Resolution economic assumptions should be based on average levels for economic growth and inflation over the previous 10 years, and budget resolutions must achieve a balanced budget within 10 years. This baseline projection will eliminate the annual debate over how optimistic our growth projections should be. If the optimists turn out to be correct, it will mean that deficits will come down even faster.

Consider the Budget and the Debt Limit together. Change the debt limit statute to authorize Congress to modify the limit as part of (and consistent with) the budget resolution, with realistic two year projections on debt levels that match the deficit reduction required in the budget resolution. Congress should eliminate multiple votes and the political theater associated with setting the debt level.

Appropriations bill time limits. Set time limits for debate of Appropriations bills, similar to a budget reconciliation bill.

Make it harder to legislate on Appropriations bills. Put some teeth into the rules against legislating on Appropriations bills: require a recorded, supermajority vote to waive the point of order against legislative provisions in funding bills. When combined with the appropriations bill time limits, it will make these bills more about funding decisions and less about policy changes that often require votes on lengthy “must-pass” bills that members have had little chance to read.

Supplemental supermajority. Require a supermajority vote (three-fifths) to pass Supplemental Appropriations bills, unless such bills are deficit-neutral. Currently, supplemental spending bills often include new spending outside of the normal appropriations process and regularly increase deficits.

Make it harder to pass bills that increase the deficit. Also require a supermajority vote to waive current PAYGO rules. These rules are designed to make it difficult to pass legislation that increases the deficit. They should not be easily waived.

Link Budget Reconciliation bills to deficit reduction. Require that all Budget Reconciliation bills reduce budget deficits in each of the ten years covered by the bill. Amendments to budget reconciliation bills currently cannot increase the deficit, but ironically this does apply to the overall bill itself.

Know the score before you vote. Require a CBO score prior to consideration of any legislation.

Bring back Earmarks. Earmarks do not increase the deficit. They allow Congress to set priorities for spending under the budget caps. Eliminating earmarks had no impact on overall spending, but unnecessarily transferred authority to unelected bureaucrats. Congress should reclaim its role in setting spending priorities, but it should require earmarks to be transparent and to be a part of the base funding bill in the House or Senate. In other words, no earmarks should appear for the first time in a conference report, where they cannot be amended. Earmarks play a practical role in facilitating cooperation among members. They are an important tool to be used to pass budgets on schedule.

We hope that the select committee can reach a consensus and propose budget reform legislation for Congress to pass before the end of the year. The current budget process has too many holes and often leads Congress into the ditch. It is time to get back on the road to fiscal responsibility.

Forbes is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 2001 to 2017. Wynn is a former Democratic Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1993 to 2008. Both are currently Senior Directors at Greenberg Traurig.