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Isakson and Shaheen: Biennial Budget a Step Toward Fixing Deficit

Solving our long-term deficit problems will require tough choices in every area of the federal budget, but we’ll never be able to make those choices unless we change the way we do business in Washington, D.C. That’s why we are proposing fundamental, common-sense reform to bring sorely needed oversight and scrutiny to the federal budget process.

Our Biennial Budgeting and Appropriations Act would finally demand from our government the same thing every American family and individual has had to do for themselves: set spending priorities and make sure that expenses are delivering results. A biennial budget system is an idea that has been endorsed by each successive president since Ronald Reagan, as well as numerous federal budget experts. It has also been fundamental to efficient budgeting in many states, including New Hampshire.

This legislation would convert the federal budget process from an annual, chaotic spending event to a two-year, thoughtful process that would require Congress to conduct oversight. Our legislation would dedicate the first year of a Congress to appropriating federal dollars while devoting the second year to scrutinizing federal programs to determine if they are working and deserve to continue to be funded. This common-sense reform would force Congress to become better stewards of the taxpayers’ money, thereby reducing reckless and wasteful spending.

Our current budget process is broken. Members of Congress rarely have time to conduct careful, thorough reviews of federal programs, and agency staff dedicate countless hours every year to justifying their own existence, rather than accomplishing critical missions. As a result, we continue to spend money on projects that are duplicative, failing or have outlasted their usefulness. Congress has repeatedly failed to pass the 12 annual spending bills on time and has instead resorted to massive omnibus bills at the 11th hour. Since 1980, Congress has only twice completed the entire appropriations process before Oct. 1.

This latest budget standoff is a perfect example of the need for a new approach. Halfway through the fiscal year, Congress still has not passed a spending plan. This month, we passed our fifth short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open. At least one more such resolution is likely. At the same time, the Government Accountability Office has just released a landmark report on government duplication and overlap. The report reveals that in as many as 34 different areas across the federal government, agencies are offering overlapping services to similar populations. But without time to examine this report, its recommendations for efficiency aren’t even part of our current budget debate.  

As Members of Congress, we are entrusted with the responsibility of spending taxpayer dollars wisely. Our current budget and spending process makes it all too easy for waste and inefficiency to remain hidden. We didn’t get into this problem overnight, and we won’t get out of it quickly. Switching to a biennial budgeting process would be a big step toward fiscal responsibility at a time when all of us agree we must focus more attention on the nation’s bottom line. 

Americans are sitting at their kitchen tables every day scrutinizing their family budgets, prioritizing how they will spend their paychecks and finding savings  where they can. It’s time that Congress switched to biennial budgeting so we can do the same with the federal budget.

Sen. Johnny Isakson is a Republican from Georgia. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is a Democrat from New Hampshire.

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