Bipartisan budget reform effort hits roadblock in final days

Bipartisan budget reform effort hits roadblock in final days
© Stefani Reynolds

A special congressional committee tasked with proposing changes to reform the budget and appropriations process hit a political roadblock just days before a statutory deadline and after eight months of work.

The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations, which has until Friday to approve legislative text, agreed to reconvene Thursday after co-chair Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyIt's past time to be rid of the legacy of Jesse Helms Helping our seniors before it's too late House approves .3 trillion spending package for 2021 MORE (D-N.Y.) raised concerns about the lack of an assurance from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus talks collapse as negotiators fail to reach deal Pelosi, Schumer say White House declined T coronavirus deal COVID-19 bill limiting liability would strike the wrong balance MORE (R-Ky.) that he would prevent political amendments from being offered on the floor alongside the panel’s proposal.

“In the absence of such an agreement, our work is at serious risk of partisan sabotage in the Senate,” Lowey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee and a member of the special panel, said Tuesday. “For that reason, many of us are not prepared to vote to report the bill out of committee.”

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The bipartisan, bicameral committee, formed as part of the budget caps agreement in February, has until Friday to report its legislation, which the Senate is legally required to take up.

A spokesman for McConnell said Tuesday that the agreement requested by Lowey is not possible.

“The law allows for amendments,” spokesman Don Stewart said. “Neither Sen. [Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] nor Sen. McConnell have the ability to guarantee that none of the other 98 members will offer amendments.”

Republicans on the committee sought to reassure Democrats that there was no “secret plan” to hijack the legislation in the lame-duck session.

“There’s a 60-vote requirement” for amendments, said Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal GOP expects Senate to be in session next week without coronavirus deal House Republicans introduce legislation to give states 0 million for elections MORE (R-Mo.), a member of the special committee. “The rules of the Senate are the same today as the day we started.”

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordSenate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag Ballooning Fed balance sheet sparks GOP concerns  The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Lauren Underwood says Americans face economic crisis if Senate fails to act on unemployment benefits extension; US surpasses 4 million cases, 1,000+ deaths for third straight day MORE (R-Okla.), another member of the panel, also pushed back on Lowey’s remarks.

“I’m not sure where this rumor started,” Lankford said.

Democrats, however, dug in.

“As his fellow Republicans made clear today, there is no reason that Sen. McConnell can’t reach an agreement with Sen. Schumer on a fair, bipartisan process for considering the important reforms agreed to by the Joint Select Committee," said Evan Hollander, a spokesman for Lowey. "Instead of doubling down on partisan posturing, Sen. McConnell should get to work and reach an agreement with Sen. Schumer before the Joint Select Committee reconvenes on Thursday morning.”

The agreed-upon proposal would make only mild adjustments to a budget process widely seen as broken. After months of hearings, the committee agreed to consolidate the annual budget resolution into a biennial event.

The proposal also would require new annual reports on the nation’s fiscal state, hearings with the Government Accountability Office, the inclusion of new tax expenditures in the budget resolution and a reorganization of the Senate budget committee’s membership.

Budget watchers said it was a missed opportunity for more meaningful changes, as several more significant reforms were cast to the sidelines.

The panel voted down or withdrew amendments on more substantial reforms, largely along party lines. Democrats failed to gain support for changes that would neuter the debt ceiling or eliminate legal budget caps in the coming years.

Republicans, meanwhile, failed in their attempts to require lawmakers to pass budget resolutions and appropriations bills on time, at penalty of losing federal funding for travel or requiring the chambers to stay in session. They also failed to win support for aligning the fiscal year with the calendar year.

Discussions on scrapping the budget committee altogether in favor of a fiscal responsibility committee, which would address both spending and revenues, failed to produce amendment language, though its supporters said they hoped to work on that approach as standalone legislation.

Committee members noted with frustration that the budget process established in 1974 is woefully inefficient. Only four times, they noted, have all 12 annual spending bills been passed on time. Large swaths of the federal government are regularly required to function off continuing resolutions, stopgap measures that maintain existing funding levels but prevent new contracts from being signed.

In parallel, the national debt has continued to grow in ways that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said are unsustainable. Deficits are on track to hit $1 trillion in 2019, and the debt burden is projected to pass historical high points in 20 years.

Lowey argued that the main problem with spending bills was a lack of political will.

“The appropriations process has been broken at times because of a lack of political will to make timely decisions,” she said.

The committee may yet pass its limited recommendations on Thursday, ahead of its legal deadline.

“It would be very unfortunate given the work that this committee has done, to get to this stage of the game with the finish line right in front of us and not be able to run right through the tape,” said committee co-chair Rep. Steve WomackStephen (Steve) Allen WomackEx-CBO director calls for more than trillion in coronavirus stimulus spending Overnight Defense: Lawmakers tear into Pentagon over .8B for border wall | Dems offer bill to reverse Trump on wall funding | Senators urge UN to restore Iran sanctions Lawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts MORE (R-Ark.).

Updated on Wednesday at 10:22 a.m.