3 Reforms Congress Can Build on to Get the Budget Under Control

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

3 Reforms Congress Can Build on to Get the Budget Under Control

Nov 8th, 2019 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Justin Bogie

Senior Policy Analyst in Fiscal Affairs

Justin Bogie serves as Senior Policy Analyst in Fiscal Affairs at The Heritage Foundation.
Important steps need to be taken to get the U.S. budget under control. Larry Gilpin/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The federal budget is more than $23 trillion in debt, with additional budget deficits projected to exceed $1 trillion annually for at least the next decade.

For the economic future of our country, it is critical that lawmakers spend more time focusing on the broader fiscal outlook.

The sooner lawmakers get to work to control the growth of government spending and the national debt, the better every American’s future will be.

On Wednesday, the Senate Budget Committee approved its first bipartisan package of budget process reform proposals in nearly 30 years. The proposal is co-sponsored by Chairman Mike Enzi, R.-Wyo., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D.-R.I.

The federal budget is more than $23 trillion in debt, with additional budget deficits projected to exceed $1 trillion annually for at least the next decade. For the economic future of our country, it is critical that lawmakers spend more time focusing on the broader fiscal outlook.

Enzi has worked tirelessly over the past several years to bring attention to the need for budget process reform. 

While the package adopted by the committee would not fundamentally shift the nation’s unsustainable budget course, elements of it could create a more responsible, accountable, and transparent budget process.

Here are three positive reforms from Senate Budget Committee’s plan that lawmakers should build on:

  1. Triggering a special reconciliation process to align debt levels to targets specified by the budget resolution. Perhaps the most promising reform proposed by the Senate Budget Committee plan is the establishment of a special reconciliation process for deficit reduction. This process would take place in the second year of each biennium of Congress if budget resolution debt targets are not being met. Under current law, lawmakers can use reconciliation to achieve the revenue, spending, and debt targets prescribed by the budget resolution. The main advantage of utilizing reconciliation is that it is not subject to the Senate’s filibuster rules. The committee’s proposal would create a special reconciliation procedure that requires Congress to develop legislation realigning federal spending with the debt targets set by the budget resolution. Lawmakers could strengthen this proposal by having an automatic enforcement mechanism, such as sequestration, in place to ensure that necessary cuts take place if Congress is unable to agree upon needed reforms.
  2. Moving disaster, emergency, and overseas contingency operations spending out of the budget baseline. Each year, Congress appropriates tens of billions of dollars in additional funding for natural disasters, emergencies, and overseas contingency operations, without accounting for this spending within existing spending caps. When the Congressional Budget Office builds its baseline spending projections for the next 10 years, it does so based on previous years’ funding for these categories of spending, not projected needs. Assuming that disaster, emergency, and overseas contingency operation spending continues forever creates a bias toward higher overall spending. Disaster and emergency funding designations have a history of being abused for purposes that are inappropriate in the context of disaster response and recovery. While overseas contingency operations funds were originally utilized as a legitimate means to respond to the 9/11 attacks, they have increasingly been used to provide unrelated national defense spending within the Budget Control Act spending caps. The Senate budget process reform proposal calls for the Congressional Budget Office to no longer assume additional appropriations for disasters, emergencies, and overseas contingency operations. This is an important first step toward creating a more responsible budget process that accounts for all spending needs within an agency’s regular appropriation.
  3. Requiring that interest costs are accounted for in Congressional Budget Office estimates. The Senate proposal would also make several worthwhile reforms to the Congressional Budget Office. One change would be to require the Congressional Budget Office to publish the estimated interest costs of legislation as a supplement to a bill’s cost analysis. Including projected interest costs in Congressional Budget Office estimates would present lawmakers with a more complete view of the budget impact of pending legislation. This will allow Congress to make more informed choices about the subjects it is debating.

The future of the Senate Budget Committee’s process reform plan is unclear. There are several other fiscal matters that Congress must devote time to before the end of the current session of Congress, namely fiscal year 2020 and 2021 appropriations.

However, ensuring a more responsible and accountable budget process should be a top priority. 

In 2018, former House Budget Committee Chairman (now ranking member) Steve Womack, R.-Ark., and Ranking Member John Yarmuth, D-.K.Y., (now chairman) introduced a bipartisan budget process reform plan that mirrors many of the proposals put forth by Enzi. While neither plan is without flaws, they both contain positive reforms that can be built and improved upon to create a better functioning budget process and fundamentally shift the nation’s unsustainable budget course.

The sooner lawmakers get to work to control the growth of government spending and the national debt, the better every American’s future will be.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal