Congressional Budgeting is a Matter of Will, Not Procedure

History is important. We ignore its lessons at our peril.

But don’t just take my word for it. Consider Niccolò Machiavelli’s observation in The Discourses that from the past we gain “knowledge of things honorable and good as opposed to those which are perilous and evil.” Or John Dickinson’s assertion at the Federal Convention of 1787: “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”

We shouldn’t dismiss such observations today simply because they appear to be disconnected from the realities of modern life. We are not as far removed from the days of Machiavelli and Dickinson as we may think.

In his memoirs, the American portraitist George P.A. Healy recounted a conversation with John Quincy Adams decades before in which the sixth president recalled having met Voltaire as a child. “Writing about these things in 1890 gives one an impression of the long succession of generations holding each other by the hand until they fade into the far-away past.”

Given all of this, the optimism with which fiscal policy wonks are greeting Congress’ latest attempt to fix the broken budget process appears to be misplaced.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 – which was signed into law February 9 – establishes a Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform and charges its members with identifying ways to improve how Congress sets fiscal policy. The panel’s membership is comprised of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate and requires a majority of each group to make official recommendations to their colleagues in both chambers. Those recommendations are given partial fast-track status in the Senate. That is, members can’t stop the Senate from beginning debate on the joint committee’s recommendations (but they retain the ability to filibuster the underlying proposal once the debate has started).

Yet notwithstanding these procedural advantages, and the fact that several reform-minded members have been tapped to serve on the joint committee, the outcome of similar efforts in the past suggests that Congress’ latest attempt at budget process reform will still fall short. This is because procedural solutions alone can’t solve Congress’ fiscal problems. Members’ rhetoric and policy positions on government spending are not aligned. This is nothing new. And Congress’ record suggests that this latest effort will also have little lasting effect. There are simply no procedural silver-bullets that can force the House and Senate to embrace a more rational appropriations process.

For example, Congress set annual deficit targets in the Deficit Reduction Act of 1985 and required an across-the-board sequestration to ensure that future congresses adhered to them. Nevertheless, deficits continued to rise throughout the late 1980s as a result of lower-than-expected economic growth and an unwillingness to reduce spending and/or raise taxes.

Congress opted for a different approach to appropriating government funding in the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990. Instead of deficit targets, the law set annual caps on discretionary spending. Yet as with the previous approach, the spending caps would be enforced by an automatic sequestration procedure. And, as before, future congresses proved unwilling to adhere to the spending limits every year in which they were in effect.

After initially setting them too low, Congress had to raise the caps in 1993 to accommodate more spending. Congress continued to exceed the caps by circumventing the higher limits with its liberal interpretation of emergency spending. Over the life of the agreement, the amount of emergency spending increased because Congress used the safety valve to exempt non-emergency spending from the Budget Enforcement Act’s discretionary spending limits.

Congress resurrected the discretionary spending caps in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Like the previous approach, the 2011 Act allowed adjustments to its spending caps for several reasons, including overseas contingency operations, emergency spending and disaster relief. And again, Congress largely ignored the process established by the 2011 law, routinely delaying its scheduled savings and offsetting them with cuts scheduled to occur in the future.

Indeed, the latest Bipartisan Budget Act, which authorizes the joint committee, undoes much of the Budget Control Act’s promised savings. For this reason alone, observers should view pledges of fiscal discipline – now and in the future – with skepticism. When viewed from a historical perspective, the joint committee’s creation looks like an excuse designed to distract from the fact that members of Congress from both parties were actually choosing to undo a previous budget process reform.

To be sure, there are problems with the budget and appropriations process today. But the circumstances that led to the joint committee’s creation suggests that the underlying problem hobbling previous budget-process reforms remains. That is, members of Congress remain unwilling to prioritize spending decisions. This paralyzes action on budget and appropriations bills each year. Giving Congress more time and resources to make fiscal policy will not solve this problem. In the absence of the political will to legislate, we should not expect the joint committee’s recommendations to be effective, regardless of what they propose.

But that doesn’t mean Congress is destined to repeat the past. Adopting a historical perspective to make sense of today’s challenges underscores the role individuals play in shaping the course of human events. The political theorist Hannah Arendt cautioned against interpreting history’s “great deeds and works” as the foregone conclusion of grander processes. Instead history, properly understood, is shaped by “single instances, deeds, or events” that interrupt our normal routines. In short, history is made by individuals doing extraordinary things.

Contrary to their stated intent, members of Congress do not desire an appropriations process that forces a fundamental reevaluation of fiscal policy during times of budgetary crisis. Instead of actually prioritizing government spending, members’ focus on procedural reforms exclusively facilitates deficit spending and the accumulation of ever-increasing debt. In that sense, defining the problem in process terms downplays the role members play in creating the status quo in the first place. In that sense, it weakens the ability of the American people to hold their elected officials accountable for their fiscal decisions.

All it takes for Congress to fix the broken budget and appropriations process is for individual members to refuse to acquiesce to it. Political will, not intricate procedural reforms, is all that’s needed to change course. Barring that, the joint committee’s reforms will be abandoned when it forces members to make tough decisions about how to allocate government resources between competing priorities.