Event Recap: Better Budget Process Summit: Building Momentum for Meaningful Reform

Feb 28, 2020 | Budget Process

On February 25, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget hosted the second Better Budget Process Summit on "Building Momentum for Meaningful Reform." The event, organized as part of the Better Budget Process Initiative, convened lawmakers, Congressional staff, policy experts, journalists, and members of the public interested in reforming our broken budget and appropriations process. After two expert panels on budget process reform, the summit concluded with remarks from Senator James Lankford (R-OK) on his bill with Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act, and a keynote address from Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) on their bill, the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act.

Watch the event below or via C-SPAN.

Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget president Maya MacGuineas opened the event by remarking on the dire state of the budget and appropriations process and the desperate need for reform. She highlighted how the budget process has broken down, exemplified by the current status quo of budgeting by crisis. She described how federal budgeting norms are increasingly being eroded, with recent Congresses missing deadlines and failing to pass budget resolutions. MacGuineas described how dysfunction in the budget process has contributed to the lack of fiscal discipline regarding either federal spending and revenue. MacGuineas concluded on a positive note, highlighting that many members of Congress care about this issue and that a bipartisan path for budget reform is attainable.

After opening remarks, the summit proceeded with the first panel discussion entitled "Fixing the Budget Process: Lessons for Lawmakers." The panel was moderated by CQ Roll Call's Jennifer Shutt. Panelists were Laura Blessing of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University; Steve Redburn of George Washington University; Roy Meyers of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Phil Joyce of the University of Maryland.

The panelists described how the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 created the federal budget process as we know it today, but that process has ultimately broken down. Congress, especially in recent times, has circumvented the procedures laid out in the 1974 Act, budgeting via a seemingly endless cycle of continuing resolutions that create unnecessary uncertainty within government agencies and without any fiscal discipline.

The first panel then discussed reforms that should be considered, some of which are included in Senators Enzi's and Whitehouse's Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act, the first bipartisan budget process reform bill to pass the Senate Budget Committee in 30 years. The panelists expressed support for many of the reforms in the bill, including debt-to-GDP targets, portfolio budgeting, and increased scrutiny on spending through the tax code. While the panelists praised the reforms in the bill, they also pointed out that increasing polarization and a growing cultural divide is creating a larger political problem, of which the budget process is a symptom.

The second panel, moderated by CQ Roll Call’s Paul Krawzak, focused on the policy and politics of the budget process. On the panel were three notable names in federal budget and appropriations policy, including former Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Bill Dauster (currently at the University of Pennsylvania), former Senate Budget Committee Director Bill Hoagland (currently at the Bipartisan Policy Center), and former House Budget Committee Staff Director Tom Kahn.

All the panelists were unified on the importance of addressing debt and deficits and some expressed support for the Conrad rule to prevent reconciliation from increasing deficits in the first ten years. As the first panel did, they praised many reforms in the Enzi-Whitehouse bill. In particular, they praised linking of debt limit increases and discretionary spending caps with the passage of a budget resolution and ending processes that can stymie orderly budget consideration such as the Senate’s chaotic vote-a-rama.

The panel was more divided over how the second year reconciliation process in the bill might be used, with some voicing concern that it may be used to cut spending on low-income programs or during times of recession when countercyclical spending might be necessary. We believe, however, that this concern is largely misplaced. The new reconciliation process would not automate any changes to spending or revenue — it would instead establish a process to consider deficit reduction measures. These measures still would have to pass the Senate and the House and be signed by the President, and this process could ultimately help policymakers agree to new revenue reforms to improve health care programs (the Byrd Rule would be still prohibit changes to Social Security). In addition, long-term deficit reduction can co-exist with near-term measures to counter a recession.

After the second panel, Maya MacGuineas and Senator James Lankford (R-OK) discussed his bipartisan bill, introduced with Senator Maggie Hassan, the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act. He highlighted how government shutdowns disrupt a range of government serviceslead to the furloughing of hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors, reducing economic activity, hurting consumer confidenceand leading the government to waste money on planning and paying for activities that don’t occur.

Lankford described his proposal: if the government fails to come to an agreement on full appropriations by the end of the fiscal year, an automatic continuing resolution is triggered to fund federal agencies and keep federal workers employed, while all official congressional and certain executive branch travel is discontinued until Congress can come to an agreement. The bill passed the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee in June 2019 in a bipartisan 8-2 vote, and Lankford said that Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on the bill in May. On today’s hyper-partisanship in government, Sen. Lankford said that Republicans and Democrats need to stop “beating each other over the head with debt and deficits,” instead acknowledging where we are and how we can move forward to sustainably and responsibly bring down our national debt. 

The event concluded with keynote remarks from Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) on their landmark budget process reform bill, the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act. Chairman Enzi began by acknowledging that enacting budget reforms absent a crisis can be difficult. Senator Whitehouse reiterated the point by saying, “debt doesn't matter, until it matters, then it’s the only thing that matters.” Chairman Enzi said that the bipartisan bill is the culmination of years of effort, building on several past proposals including those from himselfSenator Whitehouse, the recent Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform (JSC). It also included several of our Better Budget Process Initiative recommendations.

Chairman Enzi reinforced that the bill, and in particular the special reconciliation process contained within, is intended “to force a conversation about our growing debt and deficits, not to dictate what the outcome of the conversations will be.” Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) made similar remarks, saying that the bill is ultimately aimed at giving lawmakers the full fiscal picture in order to get them thinking about a realistic and sustainable glidepath to reach an agreed-upon debt-to-GDP target. Both Chairman Enzi and Senator Whitehouse expressed their optimism for the bill’s prospects and expressed hope that more members from both sides of the aisle will sign on.

We hope this discussion stimulates more bipartisan conversation on budget process reform both on and off Capitol Hill. We thank Senators Enzi, Lankford, and Whitehouse for their participation and all our panelists for their thoughtful comments.

Learn more about the budget process and efforts to improve it by checking out the summit materials below: