Feb. 7, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

No Need for GPS Until Destination Is Known

Lawmakers Must Coalesce Around Goals for Debt, Revenue, Spending Before Launching Budget Reform

I was asked three times last week by different policymakers whether a new Congressional budget process should be considered this year.

The answer is no, no way, absolutely not and don’t even think about it. Here’s why.

My Beautiful and Talented Wife (the BTW) and I are avid hikers; some of the best vacations we’ve ever taken have been weeklong, 10-miles-or-more-per-day treks at high altitudes. But we always start a hike knowing where we’re headed because that’s what determines which trails to take to get where we want to go. Deciding to end up back where we started requires a very different route than if we want to be somewhere else when the day is over. And even if the starting and ending points are the same, there are usually several different ways to get there, including out-and-back and circular routes.

In other words, unless you’re willing to carry all of your equipment, forgo modern bathroom facilities and sleep under the stars (something the BTW definitely doesn’t want to do), it’s not enough to know just that you want to go hiking: You also have to know your destination.

This is what’s been needed — and missing — from all of the discussions about a new budget process that have occurred since the last major change was put in place 13 years ago. There’s simply no consensus about the fiscal equivalent of where you want to end up at the end of the day’s hike, that is, on what a new process should accomplish. Without that type of consensus, any new budget process is virtually doomed to fail. Because there will always be questions about its legitimacy and value, there will be a strong tendency not to implement it.

The consensus built in to the original modern-day budget process — the one established by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 — was comparatively easy to agree to because the primary thing everyone wanted was a way for Congress to compete with the executive branch on budget issues. The process itself was outcome-neutral; the Budget Act has been used both to increase and decrease the deficit, and spending and revenues were both raised and lowered. From the process’s perspective, the only thing that was important was that the deadlines and procedures were followed.

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