Feb. 13, 2016

Change the Budget Process? Give Us All a Break

You would think that the deficit and national debt that many in Congress keep telling us are way too big would prompt a serious discussion about what should be done that has at least some prospect of actually succeeding.

But what instead is being proposed as salvation from our devil-sent combination of fiscal afflictions and budget transgressions? Apparently, all we have to do to be delivered is to change the Congressional budget process.

And for some reason, putting the country on the path to economic good health and righteousness once again includes the perennially proposed change from a one- to a two-year federal budget, even though that has never been proved to have any value whatsoever and could actually make things much worse.

Thatís not to say this is unexpected. Blaming the process is a mainstay of the budget debate in Washington, D.C. Congress typically proposes to do something about the budget process when it canít or wonít do anything about spending and revenues. This has been observed so often over the years that itís now a basic fact of life among budget insiders.

So itís not at all surprising that, given Congressí continuing inability to agree on the deficit reduction proposal so many say is needed, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) last week pushed his committee to approve legislation that would change the budget process.

It was, however, very disappointing.

It was also just the latest sign that thereís going to be little progress on the federal budget this year.

Iím hardly the first person to insist that changing the budget process is just a cover for not dealing with the real issues. Although itís repeated often, itís been more than a quarter-century since Congressional Budget Office Director Rudolph Penner provided one of the most famous quotes in federal budget history when he said that the budget process is not the problem; the problem is the problem. Penner also told a House Rules subcommittee reviewing the budget process in 1984: ďA process, no matter how well designed, cannot make difficult problems easy.Ē

The truth is that even if there was no process change at all, let alone the changes Ryan thinks are needed, Congress already has all the power and procedures it needs to deal with the budget. In fact, the process barely matters.

As weíve learned repeatedly from the debates of the past few decades when the House, Senate and White House didnít implement some part of the supposedly required budget procedures, no rules force Members of Congress or the president to cut spending or increase revenues if they donít want to do so.

Thatís why having joint instead of concurrent budget resolutions, requiring that the CBO provide dynamic scoring cost estimates for proposals, and changing the way baselines are calculated, all of which are required by the legislation approved by the House Budget Committee last week, wonít make a dimeís (let alone a trillion dollarsí) worth of difference.

But another proposed change that Ryan and others are pushing ó biennial budgeting ó is the biggest fraud of all.

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