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And in keeping with the automatic across-the-board spending cut that the Budget Control Act mandates if the super committee fails to come up with a plan or if its plan isn’t enacted, there’s even renewed talk about making triggers such as this a permanent feature of the annual federal budget process.
What this talk conveniently forgets is that the last time the threat of a sequester was put in place in the 1980s by Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, Congress ended up spending at least as much time coming up with gimmicks and gaming the system so the cuts wouldn’t be triggered as it did complying with the GRH requirements so that a sequester wouldn’t actually be needed.
In fact, in the grand tradition of GRH, a great deal of time and energy in Washington is already being devoted to developing strategies that will mitigate or prevent the Budget Control Act across-the-board cut if it’s triggered.
All those who are now engaging in the inane talk about procedural changes being the new fiscal magic elixir have forgotten the most important thing about the Congressional budget process: It never works if it doesn’t reflect a strong political consensus on what actually needs to be done — as opposed to how it should be done — on the budget.
For example, the House and Senate adopted the Congressional Budget Act almost unanimously in 1974 because there was an overwhelming agreement that there needed to be a Congressional process. That consensus made it possible for Congressional leaders to push their Members to comply with the CBA when they started to balk at some of its restrictions and limits.
By contrast, there was no similar consensus about Gramm-Rudman-Hollings when it was adopted as an amendment to a debt ceiling increase in 1985. Without that, GRH started to fail almost immediately after it was enacted and was replaced two years later by a modified — and weaker — process.
I defy anyone to tell me what consensus exists today on any aspect of the federal budget. There’s not even an agreement that the deficit should be reduced; some Members clearly prefer that it not go lower if spending or revenue changes they favor are the way it would happen.
It’s this lack of any consensus rather than the process that makes the current budget debate so dysfunctional. It would work just fine if Democrats and Republicans could come to an agreement on what to do and how to do it. Then again, if they could agree on that, they wouldn’t need any budget process at all.
Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”