Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Fiscal Conservatives: Step Up, Speak Up on Budget Process Reform

 

shutterstock_130943276On November 30, leaders of the House Budget Committee released a “discussion draft” of prospective reforms to the congressional budget process—a step that represents a solid foundation for addressing a perennially thorny and problematic issue. It is critical, however, that fiscal conservatives recognize that this discussion draft is only the starting point; the House Budget Committee leadership is actively seeking suggestions to strengthen the package. Fiscal conservatives, your voices need to be heard. Comments can be sent to this address.

The budget reform proposal was developed around the following principles:

  • Enhance Constitutional Authority. Emphasize the goal of advancing Congress’s power of the purse under Article I of the Constitution, and thereby strengthen its governing authority.
  • Strengthen Budget Enforcement. Tighten adherence to budget rules and restrictions on emergency-designated spending.
  • Reverse the Bias toward Higher Spending. Dismantle the often-subtle procedures and assumptions that encourage higher spending rather than spending restraint.
  • Control Automatic Spending. Take control of “direct” or “mandatory” spending, which operates on effectively permanent authorizations, consuming increasing shares of federal resources outside the regular purview of the federal budget process.
  • Increase Transparency. Account for regulatory costs that reflect an extension of government burdens outside the fiscal budget; acknowledge the government’s overall fiscal status; and make the budget more accessible to the general public.
  • Ensure Fiscal Sustainability. Expand the budgetary horizon to capture long-term commitments and risks.

An Innovative and Integrated Process

The budget reform principles were then applied to draw up a list of specific reform proposals. These specific proposals, however, are not just a laundry list of disparate steps. They are tied together in a way that produces an innovative and integrated congressional budget process. Proposals most worthy of note include the following:

  1. Change the budget timeline so that the President submits only a current services budget in February, which omits his or her policy preferences. His or her preferred budget submission would not come until the end of April. Congress would adopt its budget resolution by May 15 and then draft a joint resolution to set spending and debt limits in law. This proposal is designed to give Congress a stronger role at the early stages of the budget process.
  2. Rein in spending on programs that are not authorized.
  3. Impose a prohibition on long-term continuing resolutions on appropriations.
  4. Enhance the authority for members of Congress to strike waivers of budget rules that are otherwise applied against bills that violate those rules.
  5. Transition at least some direct spending programs to annual appropriations.
  6. Establish a regulatory budget that would impose limits on the cost of regulations.
  7. Set a long-term limit on the federal debt.
  8. Put the Social Security program, along with several other programs, “on budget.”

Obviously, such a lengthy list of specific process reform proposals will give fiscal conservatives much material to review and provide a sizeable opportunity for making recommendations and suggestions. It is important to note that given the integrated nature of the existing specific proposals, a change in one proposal could have implications for one or more of the other proposals. The recommendations and suggestions should address these implications.

A Crucial Omission

There is a significant omission in these proposals, however. Statutory and congressional rule-based provisions of the budget process have proven very difficult to enforce because there is no higher authority to prevent members of Congress and the Administration from circumventing these provisions by a variety of means. This higher authority is a debt-limiting, balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. This proposal, which is currently being pursued by the states through the Compact for America, is not included in this package for the reason that constitutional amendments on any subject, including requiring a limit on federal debt and a balanced budget, are under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committees in both houses of Congress. Fiscal conservatives: Make your voices heard on the debt-limiting balanced budget amendment as well.

It is the nature of process reform proposals that they do not guarantee the making of good policy. The House Budget Committee’s discussion draft on budget process reform is no exception to this rule. What is appropriate is to ask whether congressional budget process reforms will increase the likelihood that the federal government will in the future produce a fiscal policy that promotes economic growth (including by reforming the tax system), restrains spending, eliminates deficits sooner rather than later, and caps the debt. The House Budget Committee’s leadership has a process reform outline that points in direction of being able to answer this question in the affirmative, but this is only the first step and it needs your help.

There are 13 comments.

  1. The Reticulator Member

    There are some good things in your lists that I would like to think about further.

    In the meantime, I’ll mention that one thing I would like is for Congress to abolish constituent services, or at least prohibit any communications between members of Congress and administrative employees unless those communications are part of the public record, available on the web. There should be criminal penalties for any violations.

    Some might object and say this isn’t a budget issue. But I say it is. Congress would not devolve so much spending and legislative authority to administrative agencies if individual Congresspersons were not allowed to meddle in the results. And in fact, Congress would not be inclined to spend quite as much if it had to be open about such meddling.

    • #1
    • December 5, 2016, at 6:28 PM PST
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  2. The Reticulator Member

    The Reticulator: between members of Congress and administrative employees

    When I said “members of Congress” I should have added their staff members.

    • #2
    • December 5, 2016, at 6:29 PM PST
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  3. Vice-Potentate Member

    The Reticulator:In the meantime, I’ll mention that one thing I would like is for Congress to abolish constituent services,

    Until the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the federal government is unraveled constituent services are necessary.

    • #3
    • December 5, 2016, at 6:42 PM PST
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  4. The Reticulator Member

    Vice-Potentate:

    The Reticulator:In the meantime, I’ll mention that one thing I would like is for Congress to abolish constituent services,

    Until the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the federal government is unraveled constituent services are necessary.

    Chicken-egg. Until we abolish constituent services, Congress has great motivation not to clean out the labyrinth.

    As for where to start, the issue is a lot more focused when we talk about abolishing constituent services. If we start talking about the need to clean out the labyrinth people will go, “yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before,” and nothing will happen. Or some token changes will be made, and things will continue as before. But if at least some of us talk about taking away constituent services, it will help focus people’s minds on the problems.

    Of course, it doesn’t hurt to talk about both. Each is a symptom of the other.

    • #4
    • December 5, 2016, at 8:49 PM PST
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  5. The Reticulator Member

    Baker Spring:

    • Control Automatic Spending. Take control of “direct” or “mandatory” spending, which operates on effectively permanent authorizations, consuming increasing shares of federal resources outside the regular purview of the federal budget process.
    1. Transition at least some direct spending programs to annual appropriations.

    It is heartening to know people are even thinking about this. I wonder if there is any other practical way to do it than with programs that are administered by the states. The idea would be to allocate money to each state each fiscal year on the basis of a formula that would be based on population and other factors (but factors that would not reward states for being high-tax states). If a state sees it is going to run out of money by the end of the fiscal year, then it will have to temporarily cut the benefit either by an-across-the-board-percentage or by tightening eligibility requirements or both. If people don’t like having their social welfare benefits cut, maybe they will have to become more community minded and help police those of their neighbors who are less deserving. Like Hillary said, it takes a village.

    Maybe somebody remembers the details, but in the late 70s or so there was a Supreme Court decision that abolished residency requirements for welfare programs administered by states. That was unfortunate, because it greatly ties a state’s hands in dealing with social welfare spending. It also tends to render states into nullities as states.

    • #5
    • December 5, 2016, at 9:12 PM PST
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  6. Vice-Potentate Member

    The Reticulator:

    Vice-Potentate:

    The Reticulator:In the meantime, I’ll mention that one thing I would like is for Congress to abolish constituent services,

    Until the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the federal government is unraveled constituent services are necessary.

    Chicken-egg. Until we abolish constituent services, Congress has great motivation not to clean out the labyrinth.

    As for where to start, the issue is a lot more focused when we talk about abolishing constituent services. If we start talking about the need to clean out the labyrinth people will go, “yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before,” and nothing will happen. Or some token changes will be made, and things will continue as before. But if at least some of us talk about taking away constituent services, it will help focus people’s minds on the problems.

    Of course, it doesn’t hurt to talk about both. Each is a symptom of the other.

    I think we must mean something different by “constituent services.” I’ve got: district staff employees who help guide people through the paperwork of the VA, immigration, etc. These employees are not a monumental expense and are necessary guides for constituents to get through and around the obstacles congress and regulatory agencies have put in their way. These staff would not be necessary if federal bureaucratic systems were significantly downsized, but are definitely necessary until that happens. Not really a chicken and egg problem at all.

    • #6
    • December 5, 2016, at 9:38 PM PST
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  7. The Reticulator Member

    Vice-Potentate: I think we must mean something different by “constituent services.” I’ve got: district staff employees who help guide people through the paperwork of the VA, immigration, etc. These employees are not a monumental expense and are necessary guides for constituents to get through and around the obstacles congress and regulatory agencies have put in their way. These staff would not be necessary if federal bureaucratic systems were significantly downsized, but are definitely necessary until that happens. Not really a chicken and egg problem at all.

    Nope, that’s exactly the sort of thing that needs to go. If the regulatory agencies can’t design their programs to be more citizen-friendly, Congress isn’t doing it right when it’s funding them. And why should it, because Congressmen get brownie points from constituents who have trouble dealing with the monster it created. In the 1980s my leftwing Congressman worked both sides of the street. He funded new powers for the EPA, which got him votes from one side, and he helped constituents (small businesses) deal with their EPA problems, which got him votes from the other side. And it wasn’t just the EPA. He worked both sides of the street with the SSA, DoD, FTC, and other agencies.

    He was re-elected several times. Republican grandmas thought he was just wonderful at the way he got them their services. That was more important to them than the fact that he was destroying our country.

    • #7
    • December 5, 2016, at 9:53 PM PST
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  8. Baker Spring Contributor
    Baker Spring Post author

    @The Reticulator, @Vice-Potentate: This is an interesting debate. While your views differ, I urge both of you to make your views known the House Budget Committee. Go to the Committee web address referenced at the beginning of my piece. For what it is worth, I believe that Congress should focus first and foremost on its duty to make policy and less on constituent services.

    • #8
    • December 6, 2016, at 5:18 AM PST
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  9. Duane Oyen Member

    I don’t see anything that specifically addresses the automatic increase mechanism inherent in the “current services baseline”, or even addresses the definition of what constitutes a “current service”. We need some clever ways to re-institute zero base without saying those (gasp) terrible words. Right now, every time you try to slow the growth in a line item you are accused of cutting it. Anyone who has ever seen how budget plans in any large organization are padded every year assuming some downward adjustment (except for the federal government) knows that this is a constant rachet upward.

    • #9
    • December 6, 2016, at 7:02 AM PST
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  10. The Reticulator Member

    Baker Spring:@The Reticulator, @Vice-Potentate: This is an interesting debate. While your views differ, I urge both of you to make your views known the House Budget Committee. Go to the Committee web address referenced at the beginning of my piece. For what it is worth, I believe that Congress should focus first and foremost on its duty to make policy and less on constituent services.

    I’ll check out that web address.

    I am disappointed that there are not over 1000 comments on this article already (and not about constituent services, which is only an aside to what you wrote).

    • #10
    • December 6, 2016, at 10:03 AM PST
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  11. The Reticulator Member

    The Reticulator:

    Baker Spring:@The Reticulator, @Vice-Potentate: This is an interesting debate. While your views differ, I urge both of you to make your views known the House Budget Committee. Go to the Committee web address referenced at the beginning of my piece. For what it is worth, I believe that Congress should focus first and foremost on its duty to make policy and less on constituent services.

    I’ll check out that web address.

    You gave us an e-mail address and a link to a committee document. Is there supposed to be a web address as well?

    • #11
    • December 6, 2016, at 10:07 AM PST
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  12. Baker Spring Contributor
    Baker Spring Post author

    @The Reticulator: I have an update. On December 7, the Senate Budget Committee leadership released its own plan for congressional budget process reform. The description of the plan can be accessed at: http://www.budget.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FINAL.SBC.BPR.Lefg.SUMMARY.pdf. While it covers the same general topic as the November 30 release by the leadership of the House Budget Committee, there are significant differences between the two plans. Like the House Budget Committee plan, however, I think this set of reforms will improve the chances that gets the federal government back on the path to fiscal responsibility. I expect both Committees to move forward with their proposals in the next Congress.

    • #12
    • December 12, 2016, at 5:49 AM PST
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  13. The Reticulator Member

    Baker Spring:@The Reticulator: I have an update. On December 7, the Senate Budget Committee leadership released its own plan for congressional budget process reform. The description of the plan can be accessed at: http://www.budget.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FINAL.SBC.BPR.Lefg.SUMMARY.pdf. While it covers the same general topic as the November 30 release by the leadership of the House Budget Committee, there are significant differences between the two plans. Like the House Budget Committee plan, however, I think this set of reforms will improve the chances that gets the federal government back on the path to fiscal responsibility. I expect both Committees to move forward with their proposals in the next Congress.

    @bakerspring, Thanks for the update, but that link gives me a 404 error.

    • #13
    • December 12, 2016, at 12:00 PM PST
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