Joint committee can make meaningful reforms to the broken budget process
© Greg Nash

 

Americans expect that their elected officials are committed to protecting their tax dollars. Wait, no they don’t. Americans used to believe that. But the sad reality is, there are very few Americans who think politicians uphold their fiscal responsibilities. And that’s a shame because Congress recently took a very important step toward restoring sanity to the budget process.

If anyone doubts the need for sanity, just look at the five continuing resolutions it took for Congress to get to the $1.3 trillion omnibus that will fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year.

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The creation of a Joint Committee to make recommendations on how to fix Washington’s busted budget process, on its face, means little to the American public. But the fact that Congress is ready to do something about its budget should be big news. Government shut-downs and legislative duct tape have become de rigueur for lawmakers, but the disruption and anxiety to federal workers – including congressional staffers – as well as seniors, the military and others is getting old. Americans are fed up with Congress not performing its basic job functions.

Since 2016, the Congressional Institute has been commissioning research to look at the growing dissatisfaction that middle-class voters have with Congress. What we’ve found is that voters feel that their elected representatives are tuning them out. Research that we’ve posted on our website shows that almost 60 percent of voters don’t think that Washington hears them and just 29 percent believe that lawmakers are paying attention. Among the top concerns of survey participants were how Congress spends tax dollars and Congress not fulfilling its constitutional duties.

Both of those concerns can be alleviated through the Joint Committee. To understand why, it’s important to understand how this committee differs from the 2011 Supercommittee, which was charged with cutting $1.5 trillion in spending over a decade. That’s a very specific and very big goal. The Supercommittee failed because lawmakers couldn’t agree on how to cut spending or reform the nation’s fiscal policy. While’s there no guarantee of success for the Joint Committee, it is charged with fixing the budget process, which is an internal congressional function that shouldn’t be partisan or politically motivated. In fact, the motivation for the eight 16 members of the Joint Committee should be to restore good governance and legislative sanity.

That sounds like a lofty ideal, but the Joint Committee doesn’t have to entirely rewrite the Budget Act of 1974 to be successful. The committee has until Nov. 30, 2018, to draft recommendations and present them to Congress so they’re working on a short timeline. There’s also little appetite – as always – during an election year for sweeping legislation. That’s why it’s important that we have reasonable expectations.

Two significant changes Joint Committee members could look at are moving to a two-year budget process and changing the start of the fiscal year to Jan. 1. A two-year budget would give authorizing committees and Executive Branch agencies and departments greater certainty about funding levels. It also will let Congress exercise more effective oversight.

Over the last four decades, continuing resolutions and omnibuses have dominated the budget process leading White Houses to negotiate with congressional leadership So if the White House can wait and hash things out with leaders, it has no incentive to work with authorizing committees, which have the ability to hold the Executive Branch accountable.

Moving the start of the fiscal year from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1 makes good common sense, but it also make good fiscal sense. Passing spending bills on time is the one of the most significant jobs required in the Constitution as Congress’ responsibility. It’s one thing to say that Congress needs to reclaim the power of the purse; it’s a whole other matter to do it. Moving the beginning of the fiscal year to January 1 gives Congress more time to do its work. It also puts some distance between needing to wrap up spending bills and November elections, which can derail even the most well-intentioned bills.

Budget reform is complicated. It has significant repercussions for nearly every aspect of governing. A bipartisan, bicameral Joint Committee is the mechanism through which almost all major congressional reforms have been accomplished for the last 80 years. Given Americans’ attitude toward Washington, November’s election could tip the balance of power in Congress. That should be more of an incentive for both parties to work together on some common-sense budget reforms that will get us away from the stop-gap measures required to compensate for missed deadlines. After all, no one is certain who will hold the Speaker’s gavel in January; but either way, both parties need a functioning and efficient budget process to do the people’s business.

Mark Strand is the president of the Congressional Institute, which has published a number of papers discussing reform ideas a Joint Committee could consider.