The good old days of budgeting are dead and gone

The good old days of budgeting are dead and gone
© Greg Nash

It may be hard to remember now, but back in the “good old days,” here’s how the legislative process worked:

Step 1: Congress approved a budget, a blueprint of how money was to be spent during the year.

Step 2: Congress authorized spending on new programs and took the time to re-authorize spending on existing programs whose authorization had run out.

Step 3: Congress approved 11 or 12 appropriations bills one at a time, with appropriators carefully considering a reasonable level of spending for each category, members voting up or down on each one, approving those they agreed with, opposing those they thought spent too much or too little.


Set aside for a minute whether this utopia ever actually existed and agree with me on this: The good old days of budgeting are over — and they aren’t coming back anytime soon without new reforms.


Exhibit A is last week’s omnibus legislation, which appropriated $1.3 trillion in spending across a host of priorities in order to avoid, yet again, the prospect of a government shutdown.

The bill was the natural outgrowth of last month’s budget deal, in which Congress agreed to raise the spending caps by more than $300 billion over the next two years.

It’s hard to be surprised now.

While the bill includes many goodies to keep each side happy, neither party’s base will end up very happy as we dig deeper into the 2,000-plus pages.

The most damning take for fiscal conservatives came from Russell Berman in The Atlantic, of all places: “A Domestic Budget to Make Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMillennial momentum means trouble for the GOP Biden's Cuba problem: Obama made a bet and lost Democrats need a coherent response to attacks on critical race theory MORE Proud: The Republican Congress didn’t just ignore Trump’s proposals: The $1.3 trillion spending bill actually fulfilled — or even exceeded — many of the funding requests of his Democratic predecessor.” The title speaks for itself. 

But of course, as the president himself pointed out during an ultimately empty veto threat, key Democratic priorities, like a fix for DACA, were abandoned.

Even Trump — who signed the bill despite calling it “ridiculous” and saying he would never endorse such legislation again — is not immune from criticism. As a Rush Limbaugh headline grudgingly acknowledged: “Omnibus Bill Could Make Trump Voters Go Wobbly.”

The funny thing is, despite the partisanship that increasingly tinges Washington, there’s actually pretty broad bipartisan agreement on how the budgeting and appropriation processes should work. Regardless of the battles over individual programs, your member of Congress is likely to agree that the budget process is broken and badly in need to reform.

Groups from across the aisle agree, too, and have proposed numerous ideas for reform. There are the Committee for a Responsible Budget’s recommendations. There are those by the Heritage Foundation. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention ideas from my own organization.

But if there’s one thing the latest omnibus shows, it’s that Washington is broken in much more fundamental ways than are typically discussed in the mainstream press. The urgency of complaints may hinge upon whether there are more Democrats or Republicans in office, but these problems are baked into the system regardless of who is in power.

It isn’t partisanship that is tearing apart the very fabric of our nation and preventing reasonable, bipartisan deals from being struck by members of both parties.

No, the elephant in the room is that the very structure of our budgeting process — which impacts the policy outcomes in nearly every area of government you may care about — isn’t working anymore. 

As a result, we get monstrous, bloated, porky pieces of legislation that attempt to placate special interests and inoculate individual members from any semblance of responsibility for the outcomes, e.g.,: “I can’t vote against this legislation, because otherwise the government would shut down, or we wouldn’t fund the troops, or seniors won’t get their social security checks..."  

Making funding decisions for the world’s largest economy should come down to more than just handing out enough excuses to get support. Without major changes, if last week’s omnibus is any indication, we’re on track to let Congress take just one vote a year, rolling together every piece of legislation into one all-encompassing bill.

Then again, I don’t want to give them any ideas.

Jonathan Bydlak writes on fiscal policy and is the founder and president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, as well as the creator of Follow him on Twitter @jbydlak and @Reduce_Spending.