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The Budget Process; Pushed to (and Sometimes Beyond) the Breaking Point

By Alice Rivlin, Sheri Rivlin, and Allan Rivlin

With House Republicans calling for a return to “regular order” in passing budget legislation, but at the same time threatening potential chaos over a debt limit increase, it seems like a good time to review basic budget process terms. Please enjoy this excerpt from pages 262-263 of Divided We Fall, Why Consensus Matters by Alice Rivlin, Sheri Rivlin, and Allan Rivlin (Brookings Press, 2022).

The budget process has been challenged, stressed, and at times almost broken down completely as the business of legislation becomes a secondary priority for lawmakers, losing out to the larger goal of sending a message to voters in the never-ending campaign for reelection. Here I want to define two ways budget work has been achieved in recent times—one of which I call the new normal, which is a dismal state of affairs, and the other I call the new abnormal, which is far worse. First, let’s talk about the old normal, which is called regular order.

As discussed in chapters 4 and 5, the congressional budget process is defined by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which laid out a detailed timeline and rules for passing each year’s annual budget through budget resolutions, and sometimes reconciliation bills, in Congress before the appropriations committees are given the task of writing twelve separate spending bills. However, this process stopped happening on schedule, and more recently, it does not happen at all.

The process is supposed to start in the cabinet departments and agencies, where policy analysts and budget analysts go through all the programs looking for inefficiencies, and opportunities to shift priorities. Their recommendations are passed to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has a lot of budget analysts to make the tough decisions needed to prepare the president’s budget proposal, which is supposed to be delivered to Congress in February.

The House and Senate Budget Committees, with the support of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and in consultation with twelve appropriations committees on each side of the Hill and the tax writing committees, prepare the House and Senate budget resolutions. These resolutions are supposed to be passed by April 15. A budget reconciliation bill may be necessary if the House and Senate do not pass identical budget resolutions. These guide the appropriations committees in their work to prepare the twelve appropriations bills necessary to fund the government by the start of the new fiscal year on October 1.

Completion of the twelve separate spending bills has become a rarely attained goal. It is great when they can be passed in regular order, but more often than not, the bills that cannot get passed on time are rolled into a large omnibus spending bill. When this cannot get passed on time, Congress gives itself an extension of a few weeks or a few months in the form of a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government at current levels. If Congress cannot even pass a CR, that’s when we see a partial or total government shutdown.

What I call the new normal is what happens when the budget process does not get completely derailed by what I call the new abnormal: shutdown threats, budget standoffs, and up to the deadline negotiations between the White House and congressional leadership. Even without the high drama, the budget process is facing additional stresses in the era of party parity and insecure majorities due to the dysfunction throughout the legislative process.

Budget resolutions are must pass bills, and, by tradition, they usually reach the House floor under “open rules” that allow amendments. Budget bills offer the rare opportunity for members to propose amendments (often non-germane to the budget process)because leadership is now tightly controlling all other legislative activity. This is one of the reasons why Congress misses so many budget deadlines; work on the budget gets delayed by fights over things like funding abortion or flying the Confederate flag.The result is a House budget process that is burdened with a lot of added politics and complexity, but the Senate side may be even worse.

The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 exempted budget resolutions and reconciliation bills from Senate filibusters. A budget resolution is a necessary first step in using the reconciliation process. Reconciliation bills are attractive opportunities to move legislation through the Senate with a 51 vote threshold rather than the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. The Senate parliamentarian (a nonpartisan independent advisor) must agree that each element of a reconciliation bill qualifies as a budgetary matter according to the criteria set under the Byrd Rule (as discussed in chapter 5). Both the Affordable Care Act and the Republican effort to repeal the ACA (the one that failed when Arizona Republican Senator John McCain voted thumbs down)were qualified under the Byrd Rule to reach the floor.

Senate budget bills can be amended, and this has caused an annual ritual called a vote-a-rama, where all 100 Senators stay on or near the Senate floor for a marathon session that can exceed 24 hours, where they vote up or down on as many as 100 amendments, sometimes more. This has become an opportunity for senators to raise ideas that have no other viable path to passage in the tightly controlled legislative atmosphere, and it often allows senators to force messaging votes that put every Senator on the record on controversial issues that are then raised in political ads.

All of these are just examples of the strains placed on the budget process by the increased politicization and tighter control of the legislative process that has evolved in response to party parity and increased polarization. But this is the new normal level of dysfunction. Chapter 9 describes how the budget process was taken to even greater heights of abnormality in the budget battles between the Obama White House and Tea Party influenced Republicans. We can hope that the new normal era of omnibus bills, continuing resolutions, and vote-a-ramas does not often get replaced by a new abnormal of default threats leading to supercommittees and sequesters, but I have no reason for my optimism unless we change congressional rules and norms of behavior.

We all pay a price for this lack of government function. The budget process is cumbersome, but when it functions, budget analysts and lawmakers have the opportunity to make decisions about spending and taxing priorities. Instead of lowering the deficit by changing policy—for example, by slowing the rapidly rising costs for providing medical care or eliminating unneeded special tax breaks—budgets passed as continuing resolutions at a deadline, and amid threats of default, just mean no real decisions are made.

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