Feb. 11, 2016

Budget Process Is Not Fiscal Instant Messaging

One of the things that always impressed me about the earliest days of the Congressional budget process ó circa 1977-80 ó was how quickly Members of Congress learned to use it to send messages.

When it became clear that the House and Senate Budget committees had little real power (after all, they didnít have the authority to increase or decrease spending or taxes or change authorizations) and when it dawned on everyone that the process was advisory rather than mandatory, the budget resolutions, the reports that accompanied the budget resolutions and the budget-related floor debates all became ways to tell something to someone.

In some cases, the messages were direct and to the point, as when a committee was told what had been assumed for a specific program or provision within its jurisdiction. In most cases, however, the message was subtler, with the budget resolution based on spending or revenue changes that were reflected in the topline numbers rather than explained in report language or in a colloquy on the floor.

Three things have changed in the decades since the budget processís message-sending capabilities started to be understood. First, instead of primarily being used as an internal memo to talk to others on Capitol Hill, Members of Congress today use it to reach those outside the Beltway. Second, the messages that once primarily were about Budget Committee preferences on how programs and provisions should be changed are today about electoral maneuvering. Third, the subtle messaging from early days has been replaced by shameless political efforts.

Thatís the only conclusion thatís possible after watching how the budget process became the political equivalent of Twitter last week. Economic policymaking ó that is, what the budget process is supposed to do ó was completely replaced with instant-message-like efforts that definitely were not worth the time, taxpayer money or energy it took to send the messages.

The House, which in recent years has already done enough silly things on the budget to merit a lifetime achievement award, took it one step further last week by moving ahead with reconciliation based on the instructions included in the budget resolution it passed late last month.

That may not seem to be a bad thing until you remember that reconciliation is the process that, according to the Congressional Budget Act, is used only to enforce a budget resolution conference agreement and not what either the House or Senate wants to do on its own. With the Senate already indicating that it has no plans to do a budget resolution this year, thereís no chance that there will be a budget resolution conference report and, therefore, no chance that reconciliation will occur.

That makes everything the House does to comply with the reconciliation instructions in its own budget resolution nothing more than a messaging effort by the Republican majority to tell the GOP base this is why it deserves to be re-elected. Never mind that what it passed has no chance of being enacted.

Meanwhile, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) last week moved ahead (albeit without votes or amendments) with plans to consider a budget resolution that he proudly proclaimed was based on the recommendations included by the Bowles-Simpson commission in its final report.

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