Opinion

The unglamorous job of federal budgeting

New budget reform legislation would help restore a broken process

Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi has joined with Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and other colleagues to introduce the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — It is no secret that a vast majority of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. Too often our political debates are characterized by hyperpartisanship, rather than achieving meaningful outcomes for the American people. Nowhere is this problem more acute than when it comes to our inability to address our country’s unsustainable fiscal course.

Our current budget process is broken, as evidenced by mounting debt and deficits, a patchwork of temporary spending bills, government shutdowns, and budgets that, if passed at all, are quickly ignored. While process reforms alone won’t solve our fiscal challenges, we believe that realigning incentives, creating a more predictable budget pathway and encouraging active engagement in fiscal outcomes are steps in the right direction.

Who knows? They might even lead to a strong bipartisan solution.

That is why we have joined with a number of our colleagues to introduce the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act, which would reorient the budget resolution to serve as both a near-term operating plan and a longer-term fiscal guidepost. Our proposal, which was carefully crafted with input from senators on both sides of the aisle, is built on a two-year budget cycle. Regular appropriations bills would continue to be developed and processed annually, but top-line discretionary totals would be set two years out, providing more predictability in the spending process.

Our legislation would also require greater involvement from Senate tax-writing and spending committees to ensure that all corners of the federal ledger are scrutinized and that budgets are attainable. The Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office would assist in this effort by reviewing portfolios of federal spending on a staggered five-year cycle to help lawmakers identify ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of federal programs.

To force Congress to consider the nation’s fiscal trajectory, our bill would require the budget resolution to include long-term fiscal targets based on our national debt as a percentage of our overall economy. This measure is generally viewed as the best indicator of a country’s ability to pay back its debts, and our hope is that this added emphasis will help set us on a more sustainable fiscal course. These targets would be backed by a new deficit-reducing special reconciliation process to help ensure that Congress adheres to its fiscal plans. This would also allow the congressional committees with policy expertise to determine which revenue and spending changes may be necessary to meet those plans.

Consistent with our goal of providing for an operating budget that incorporates real fiscal targets, adoption of a budget resolution under our proposal would generate legislation that would go directly to the president to conform the statutory debt limit with levels in the budget agreement. Linking the debt limit to adoption of an actual fiscal plan would end the dangerous brinksmanship threatening default on our country’s financial obligations.

UNITED STATES - MAY 1: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., arrives for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the "Department of Justice’s Investigation of Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election" on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. Attorney General Bill Barr testfied during the hearing. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Whitehouse, above, and Enzi acknowledge their new legislation won’t fix all fiscal challenges, but it represents an important step in restoring the country’s broken budget process. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Our proposal would encourage bipartisan work by offering the first-ever procedural pathway for budgets with broad bipartisan support. In addition to setting a debt-to-GDP target, bipartisan budgets would outline a year-by-year glide slope for achieving it, which would include revenue levels, annual spending, tax spending and health care. This approach would allow Congress to set statutory discretionary spending caps, highlight key fiscal drivers and be considered under expedited procedures in the Senate.

Transparency is another key element of our reform plan. Our legislation would require that up-to-date tabulations of congressional budget activity be publicly posted and that the interest effects of authorizing and revenue legislation be included in cost estimates prepared by the CBO. The bill would help ensure that the budget office continues to prioritize transparency in the estimating process, without jeopardizing the important, nonpartisan analysis it provides.

Our bill would also provide the Senate new internal budget enforcement tools and streamline consideration of budget resolutions while protecting the ability of senators on both sides of the aisle to offer amendments. Finally, it would rename the Senate Committee on the Budget the Committee on Fiscal Control and the Budget to underscore the importance of long-term planning.

Sound budgeting is not glamorous, but the American people deserve our good-faith, bipartisan effort to address our nation’s problems. The Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act won’t fix all of our fiscal challenges, but it represents a needed and important step in restoring our broken budget process.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi is a Republican representing the state of Wyoming. He chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democrat representing the state of Rhode Island. He is a member of the Senate Budget Committee.

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