Washington just closed the books on another fiscal year, but barely opened them on many programs. Paradoxically, this oversight — as in omission — means a lack of oversight — as in Constitution. For Congress to reclaim its role — over government spending, operations, and bureaucracy — it is time it reclaimed its budget.
Fiscal 2018 ended with Congress having completed five of the 12 bills needed to annually fund the government for fiscal 2019. While finishing less than half these appropriations bills may seem less than successful, they accounted for over 70 percent of annual government funding and their completion marked Congress’ best record on them in years.
However, this year’s qualified success — usually a high percentage of annual spending is packaged into large omnibus and/or short-term legislation — powerfully argues that Congress must do more than redouble its effort. Instead it needs to double it — literally: Congress must adopt biennial budgeting.
Annual budgets worked when government was much smaller and simpler, and Congress appropriated its money. The task was manageable and funding went hand-in-hand with oversight. These no longer apply and Congress, and the people, have lost a valuable role.
Clearly government has grown enormously. However, it has also grown enormously more complex. While it used to just spend Congress’ annual appropriations, the bulk of its spending is now automatically, or perpetually, provided.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2018, this mandatory spending was twice discretionary appropriations — 12.7 percent of GDP to 6.3 percent. And this trend is accelerating. CBO projects by 2048, the ratio will be more than 3-to-1: 17.5 percent to 5.5 percent.
This means that despite Congress’ year-long effort to fund discretionary spending — which is itself growing, while Congress and its resources remain comparatively static — currently twice as much spending is not subject to concerted annual review. And even less will be in the future.
Biennial budgeting is not a new idea, but it is one whose time has come. If Congress would appropriate money on a two-year basis, it would allow the second year for greater oversight of the programs being funded — and even more importantly, for operations not currently subject to it.
Such a two-year process was instrumental in Congress getting as far as it got in this year’s appropriations work. Last year’s large budget deal set overall spending levels for this year too. What needs to happen is for this to become regularized: Fund for two years, rather than one, and Congress adapt to it — particularly with greater oversight in the non-appropriations year.
Of course there will be arguments against this. Nowhere is tradition more entrenched than Congress; however, this is the weakest complaint. Congress is already not doing its funding annually, at least not as intended, or historically done — hence the frequent omnibus bills and short-term durations.
A two-year cycle would conform to a Congress’ actual formal tenure. It would in no way cede its Constitutional responsibility either; it would actually increase it. The original intent, when government’s simpler operation was encompassed by simple funding, was that annual appropriations would give Congress constant oversight of government’s operations.
Such oversight of the executive branch by the legislative is central to our government’s checks and balances. And it is even more so as oversight by the people’s representatives of unelected bureaucrats operating a rapidly growing portion of the federal budget. Government spending continually and increasingly outpacing economic growth — as CBO’s historical data and future projections show — is unsustainable. Its lack of oversight should be equally unacceptable.
The problem presented goes well beyond just controlling spending. Government’s expanding operations now extend off its ledger altogether. Regulations undoubtedly add hundreds of billions in private sector cost, yet go uncounted — and un-scrutinized. They are therefore in all the more need of the regular oversight biennial budgeting would allow. Such greater opportunity for oversight could also extend to government operations, something headlines regularly show is increasingly necessary.
Congress is spending greater amounts of time on a shrinking part of government’s operations. There is a need for an expansive reexamination of both how Congress spends and how government operates. Addressing the former would allow for the latter.
Biennial budgeting should be neither a conservative nor a liberal idea, but appeal to both. The efficiency that could come from increased examination could both limit spending and increase its efficacy — each necessary to address increasing demands with limited resources.
However, its non-budgetary importance is even greater. Congress’ power of the purse was intended to be the power to control. Neither automatic spending, nor an army of unelected bureaucrats, were envisioned. Together it is easy to construct auto-crats, unaccountable to anyone. Here lies the danger and Congress’ original and greatest responsibility — biennial budgeting would be an opportunity to begin reclaiming it.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.