The increasingly troubled fiscal outlook detailed earlier this year by the Congressional Budget Office reflects something more fundamental than the obvious profligacy of the past several years. It results from Congress’ neglect of budgeting itself. Until lawmakers get back to this fundamental constitutional responsibility, spending, deficits and debt will continue to grow unchecked, threatening the future of the U.S. economy.
To the extent Congress’ complex and cumbersome budget procedures are contributing to the problem, incremental adjustments around the edges of the budget process are no longer good enough. A more fundamental change is needed: Dismantle the separate House and Senate Budget committees and combine their duties into a single Joint Budget Committee.
This might sound like a mere cosmetic change. Yet considering the degraded status of the current system, concentrating budget practices might make the process more efficient and stimulate fiscal responsibility.
The existing Budget committees have largely ceased functioning as intended. In the most recent cycle, the House panel did not even write a full budget. In previous years, the House often passed budgets lawmakers knew had no chance of being adopted, and the Senate has at times not bothered with a budget at all.
In fact, leadership in both chambers has largely taken over the budget process, decapitating the committees designed for that purpose. The leaders’ most recent appropriations agreement once again increased spending enough to satisfy both parties’ desires, further eroding the budget process and heaping more debt on current and future taxpayers.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising no one listens to the Budget committees anymore. Their job is to define spending levels for other committees, but leadership no longer enforces those targets. The Budget panels are now merely platforms for advertising the grand policy promises of either party.
A Joint Budget Committee, consisting of members of both the House and Senate, could help restore congressional budgeting for several reasons.
First, it would streamline the budget process. Instead of the current procedure, which requires the House and Senate to each pass separate budget resolutions and then reconcile the differences in conference, the joint committee would proceed directly to a final agreement. There would be no intermediate steps. Consequently, the budget could be adopted earlier in the year, allowing authorizing and appropriating committees more time to complete their budgetary legislation.
Second, such budgets would likely be more realistic, with both chambers represented from the outset. This would be especially true if different parties controlled the two chambers. Budgets drafted this way would reflect a truly bipartisan consensus. Such budgets might not fully satisfy either party, but they would represent the views of both, making legislators more likely to stick with them.
Third, the broader membership of the joint panel might give it more authority than the separate committees. It would speak for the entire Congress, not just one chamber. In the current arrangement, if either chamber fails to pass a budget, the entire system collapses.
Fourth, members of the new joint committee would have a natural incentive to assert their authority and make the process work, even if only to justify their participation. They would not want to fail. Further, such a fundamental change in budget practices, rather than minor adjustments around the edges of the process, might be just enough to stimulate a return to budgeting. That in itself would be an important step, forcing lawmakers to face the fiscal crisis at hand.
Some might consider this argument a bit too optimistic, especially with the bitter divisions and cynicism in today’s politics. Nevertheless, Congress must get back to this most basic constitutional responsibility, and most lawmakers know this. Perhaps a little hopefulness is a necessary first step.
Tom Price, M.D., served as chairman of the House Budget Committee from 2015 to 2017 and represented Georgia’s 6th District as a Republican for six full terms. He also served as Health and Human Services secretary.