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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.

Reader Discussion

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on March 29, 2018 at 12:33:11 pm

The problem is fairly straightforward. We have a double veto gate situation in the senate. Both the republicans and the democrats can veto any legislation from passing through the filibuster (this is true whoever is in the majority). The minority has no power to set its own priorities, so all it can do is veto the majority and try to demand they include their priorities to not get vetoed. The majority doesn’t normally care if their stuff is vetoed because they can just wait and keep trying to convince members of the minority to get on board. The minority see’s the deadline of the government running out of funds as their own leverage of getting the majority to do what they want (include some of their priorities), so the longer they wait the more leverage they see themselves having. So it is to both parties advantage (whoever is in the majority) to wait until the last possible moment to get something passed.

Furthermore, the minority never wants to do 12 different bills, because assuming for a moment their really important priority is in one of those 12 appropriation bills, the majority will just pass the other 11 and then that 11th appropriation bill will be deadlocked and we will have a partial shutdown. But this is the priority for the minority, so a partial shutdown on just this topic would hurt the very thing the minority wants. Instead, the minority tries to use the other 11 parts of government as leverage (threatening to shut it all down), so it can at least get what it really wants in the 12th. This is why the dems will filibuster ANY appropriation bill that isn’t a part of an omnibus bill (same would be true of republicans if they were in the minority).

The only way to fix this situation is to abolish the filibuster for purely appropriation bills (nothing in the bill that doesn’t appropriate money). Then the majority gets its way, and we can do this split into different bills and consider the process rationally.

You still have a little bit of problem in the “we will fund the entire DOJ, except prosecution X, or program Y)” which lets the majority do a lot of mucking around with not entirely money related matters, but it is basically impossible to stop this entirely and allow congress real power of what money is spent on. Maybe something like the total amount of funds per agency is set by the majority, but the minority can still filibuster all other restrictions on the money (and if both sides don’t agree on the sub-agency restrictions then it is given without restrictions).

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Devin Watkins
on March 29, 2018 at 12:40:51 pm

51 senators can nuke the filibuster, but this is going to cause the minority to scream really loudly. Better would be an agreement to eliminate the filibuster, but push it off into the future. Hopefully then you can get the minority on board to agree to it. No one knows who is going to be in charge of the senate in 10 years, so remove the filibuster on purely appropriation bills 10 years from now (a change to the rules not using the nuclear option would require two-thirds of the Senators. Get everyone on board to agree that the current situation isn't working, put a plan in place that both sides can agree on (because it doesn't, today, help either party directly).

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Devin Watkins
on March 29, 2018 at 14:48:23 pm

So long as the citizenry (can be led to) believe that their clamoring for more Federal munificence is justified, our political masters will continue to deploy strategically targeted cornucopias of federal monies to ensure THEIR continued *relevance* aka voter approval to the annual "Charity Ball" in Washington D.C.

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gabe
on March 29, 2018 at 18:32:13 pm

Watkins makes sense except for that 10 year postponement.
Why stay the execution?
Nuke the filibuster is the way, but the Old Bulls of the Senate in both parties benefit from it, and it's going nowhere so long as Senators McConnell, Cornyn, Alexander, McCain, Graham and Hatch refuse to support Trump's calls to abolish it..
That is going to ruin the Trump Administration's capacity to reduce the budget, reform entitlements and accomplish any substantive legislative reform in the areas of environmental law and health care.

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timothy
on March 29, 2018 at 19:50:04 pm

If McConnell fails to repeal the filibuster this year or next. it will remain in place until such time as the Democrats regain control of the Senate, after which the filibuster will be repealed on a straight party line basis no later than February 1 of year after the November election in which the Democrats win the Senate majority.

The Democrats are street-fighters and much better at this sort of thing than the country club Republicans.

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timothy
on March 30, 2018 at 11:21:28 am

The problem with nuking the filibuster right away is that would clearly be in favor of the current Republican majority. As such the Democrats will not support it. If the Republicans had the political will, they could nuke the filibuster on this limited issue with 51 senators. But I doubt they are willing to do that. As a second best option, getting a supermajority to pass a change to the rules without using the nuclear option, would at least send us on the right track eventually. That would likely require pushing the effective date out long enough that neither party can know who will be the in the majority (10 years is just an example).

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Devin Watkins
on March 30, 2018 at 15:01:04 pm

"The Democrats are street-fighters and much better at this sort of thing than the country club Republicans."

You may now Drop the Mic!!!!!

Absotively!!!!!

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gabe

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.