Any anniversary divisible by ten, whether of a country, institution or historic event prompts a spate of news articles, speeches and special commemorations that inevitably pose the question: What does it mean today?
The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on July 12, 1974, is no exception. The Bipartisan Policy Center (where I am a resident scholar) marked the anniversary this week with a symposium, “The Congressional Budget Act at 40: Midlife Crisis?” I half-seriously suggested amending the title by adding, “or Terminal Illness?” Judging from comments made at a recent congressional hearing on budget reform, the current process is badly broken and in need of either substantial renovation or immediate demolition.
Any reassessment of the Budget Act requires understanding what Congress originally had in mind when it superimposed two new committees, a joint office, and an entirely new process on top of existing authorizing and appropriations processes. We can then determine how well the Act has met those expectations, as well as subsequent demands placed on it, over the last four decades.
As a staffer for a prominent member of the House Rules Committee where the final budget act language was hammered out in 1973-74, I observed two distinct expectations for the process emerging from liberal and conservative ranks. That produced a curious convergence of overwhelming bipartisan support for the Act though both camps would later see their hopes dashed. Liberals saw the new process as a way to break the stranglehold conservative appropriators had on spending levels so that Democratic majorities in Congress could set their own priorities, independent of the president’s budget. Conservatives, including President Nixon, saw the process as a device for asserting control over the entire budget, making it easier to reduce spending and deficits.
Allen Schick, who helped shape the Budget Act a Congressional Research Service staffer at the time, later came down squarely in the middle of the two camps in his definitive work on congressional budgeting, “Congress and Money” (1980). He correctly points out that the budget law as drafted was fiscally neutral. It had no bias for or against more spending or lower deficits. The process was whatever Congress decided to do with it each year.
But that neutral statutory scheme did not last long as deficits continued to mount through the 1980s and the public became more concerned about where it all was taking the nation. The 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act put a definite anti-deficit spin on the Act by establishing a downward glide-path in deficits culminating in a balanced budget. When that didn’t work, the Act was further amended in 1990 by the Budget Enforcement Act to establish discretionary spending ceilings plus a pay-as-you go requirement to offset entitlement benefit increases and tax cuts so they would be deficit neutral.
The brief period of budget surpluses at the turn of the century diverted attention from the necessity of such mechanisms and Congress hasn’t had the will or inclination since to confront the real source of reemerging deficits — the explosive growth in entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security which comprise 65 percent of the budget. Instead, the two parties argue over appropriate levels of defense versus domestic discretionary spending which account for just 29 percent of the budget. Those are the fights, along with politically charged policy riders, that have so paralyzed Congress that it can’t adopt a final budget resolution or separately enact any of the 12 regular appropriations bills.
One thing the two sides can agree on is that the process must be broken because it is not advancing either party’s causes, outcomes or public reputation. The budget process has always been a convenient whipping boy at such junctures, especially since those wielding the whips are not about to turn them collectively on the real perpetrators of dysfunction.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.