It’s time to bring back the Budget committees to the congressional budget process

Expiration of discretionary caps gives Congress a chance to return to a budget regimen that served members well

Eric Ueland, as Republican staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, hands out copies of the first Trump administration budget in May 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Eric Ueland, as Republican staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, hands out copies of the first Trump administration budget in May 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 15, 2021 at 7:00am

Last week’s release of President Joe Biden’s “skinny” budget outlining his approach to discretionary spending for the upcoming fiscal year turns congressional focus to how exactly the administration’s spending and tax priorities will fit together and what processes the House and Senate majorities will use to put them into effect.

And with the expiration of the 2011 Budget Control Act’s caps on discretionary spending, it’s time to restore the ability of the congressional budget process to set discretionary spending amounts in the budget resolution, rather than in a piece of legislation signed into law.      

Bringing back the role of the budget resolution for discretionary spending would counter the diminishment of the congressional budget process. In the past several Congresses, under both Democratic and Republican majorities, budget resolutions have been employed primarily to trigger the reconciliation process to move significant policy priorities across the Senate floor free of a filibuster and with provisions as far-reaching as the majority chooses and the rules of reconciliation allow.

But the budget process was created to look across the entire federal budget, allowing congressional majorities to harmonize perspectives of the president and the legislative branch to create an integrated framework for federal spending, revenues and debt. And one of those big responsibilities assigned to a budget resolution was allowing Congress to independently set discretionary spending amounts that it could use to draft annual appropriations bills into law.  

Historically, the House and Senate Budget committees would review a president’s annual discretionary budget submission, assess member input, and then establish discretionary spending amounts in the budget resolution itself. This empowered members to work with each other, enhanced collaboration between the Budget and Appropriations committees, and buttressed the legislative branch in working with the executive branch to formulate and ultimately enact the 12 spending bills that Congress must write every year. 

However, the use of the budget resolution to set overall discretionary spending by the Budget committees declined as Congress began to adopt budget resolutions in only odd-numbered years. Dealing with conflicts and challenges following the 9/11 attacks also significantly expanded the scope of supplemental appropriations and demanded new ways to account for spending on national defense and security that were negotiated into law.   

Then in 2011, Congress and the president removed the responsibility for setting discretionary spending levels from the Budget committees and Congress.  

Facing a crisis over increasing the federal debt limit, a Republican House, Democratic Senate and a Democratic president wrote into law discretionary spending levels for 10 years as part of an interlocking series of trade-offs to clear a path for action on the debt limit. Since then, every two years Congress and the president have renegotiated those discretionary spending amounts, and written them into law. This is often done with a very small negotiating contingent, and the end result is often presented to members in a take-it-or-ultimately-see-the-government-shut-down construct.   

Whenever Congress has acted on a budget resolution after 2011, it only set discretionary spending levels in the resolution that matched statutory limits. Any increases above the legal levels could have triggered 60-vote hurdles for action on the resolution in the Senate, and any reductions would have run afoul of whatever statutory arrangement governed at the time.   

This year, the last set of negotiated discretionary spending levels has expired.  Restoring the role of the Budget committees to serve as the clearinghouse for reviewing all aspects of the president’s budget request and establishing the upcoming fiscal year’s discretionary spending totals would be beneficial.   

When Congress considers the budget resolution, a larger group of members could participate in comprehensive conversations about discretionary spending.  The vision of Congress’ budget process as the place where trade-offs and alternatives can be fully debated and agreed to would be fulfilled. The Appropriations committees can then draft their bills without having to guess what an overall discretionary spending limit might end up being, or wait until some deal comes together. 

Within a regular order appropriations process, minorities still have rights to exercise, such as opposing how the overall discretionary spending pot is divided in the Appropriations Committee to amending and, if necessary, filibustering individual spending bills or amendments on the Senate floor.   

While I, as a Republican, will not agree with many priorities of the Biden administration, I strongly believe in junking biannual negotiations over discretionary spending caps and having the Budget committees resume their original roles in setting discretionary spending levels for Congress.

This would result in more input from a broader range of members, a better understanding of and participation in the discretionary spending process by non-Appropriations Committee members, and a more broad-range conversation about administration priorities on the Hill. That will be all to the good. 

Eric Ueland was Republican staff director for the Senate Budget Committee from 2013 to 2017. He was also White House director of legislative affairs in the Trump administration (2019-20) and chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (2004-07) and Senate Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles (1999-2002).