November 26, 2014

Washington Budget Report: July 1, 2014

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Examining Benefits of a Two-Year Budget Cycle

Our Biennial Budgeting Infographic shows lawmakers' poor record of passing appropriations bills on time.

Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert L. Bixby told a House panel last week that switching to a two-year budget cycle would make time for better congressional oversight, improve long-term planning and help lawmakers focus on badly needed fiscal reforms.

He and other experts testified in a hearing by a Rules subcommittee on the Biennial Budgeting and Enhanced Oversight Act of 2014, introduced by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wisc.).

Congress currently uses an annual budget cycle. Under a two-year system, lawmakers would use the first year to pass a budget resolution and appropriations legislation for the next two years. In the second year, they would concentrate on oversight and planning.

Some of this time could be used to deal with mandatory programs that currently receive little review. Bixby noted that lawmakers could still pass supplemental spending bills for unexpected developments in the second year of the cycle.

Many lawmakers, he said, think that “repetitive annual battles over the budget make it impossible to engage in any meaningful oversight or systemic reform.” The budget process now “exists in name only,” he said.

“Budget process reform is not a panacea for the monumental fiscal challenges we face as a nation, nor is it a substitute for making real choices on taxes and spending,” Bixby cautioned. “But returning to a regular budget process that refocuses our attention on long-term planning would help facilitate a discussion about how best to address these challenges.”

Overseas Funding Request Includes Questionable Items

The administration has requested $65.8 billion in funding for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account in 2015, including money for certain items that seem more appropriate for the military’s base budget.

The OCO account is exempt from discretionary spending caps while the base budget is not. Consequently, the OCO account is sometimes used to circumvent the caps, which were set by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The administration’s OCO request, released last week, is well below the $79.4 billion “placeholder” figure in the President’s 2015 budget.

Under the administration’s own guidelines, the OCO account should be reserved for equipment, weapons and support in geographic areas where combat missions take place. The new request, however, includes funding for such things as the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund and the European Reassurance Initiative, both of which include activities not directly involved with combat missions.

On the domestic front, President Obama on Monday asked Congress for “emergency” funding of $2 billion to beef up immigration enforcement on the U.S.-Mexican border and provide humanitarian assistance to the large number of unaccompanied children who reportedly crossed the border in recent months.

Congress should evaluate the request for emergency designation of this funding -- which would exempt it from budget caps -- against the traditional criteria of “necessary, sudden, urgent, unexpected and temporary.” While the children are a legitimate concern, ideally the necessary spending for them as well as the enhanced enforcement should be offset elsewhere in the budget.

Still a Long Way to Go on 2015 Spending Bills

After Democrats and Republicans agreed late last year to overall spending levels for 2015, there were widespread hopes that smoother sailing was ahead for the appropriations process this year.

Halfway through the year, however, the House has passed only five of the twelve required spending bills. The Senate has not completed work on any. So lawmakers are talking about relying once again on a stop-gap measure -- a “continuing resolution” -- that would keep the government running after Sept. 30, when Fiscal 2014 ends.

Such resolutions are an abdication of congressional responsibility. Lawmakers should rely on the regular budget and appropriations process to work through their differences, set priorities, forge compromises -- and approve all of the necessary spending bills in a timely manner.

This will allow federal agencies to plan more effectively for the coming year and it avoids the risk of another wasteful government shutdown.

Former Lawmakers Bemoan Political Divisions

Lori Montgomery of The Washington Post moderates last week's panel discussion.

A Concord Coalition panel discussion recently highlighted the continuing need for fiscal reform, with former lawmakers lamenting the sharp divisions within and between the two political parties.

“We have a fiscal challenge which is really a political challenge which really is a societal challenge. . . the two parties are more polarized than ever before,” said Evan Bayh, a former senator (D-Ind.).

Mike Castle, a former House member (R-Del.), put it bluntly: “The Congress of the United States today is a difficult place.”

Also participating in the program last week in Washington were former senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), former congressman John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and Concord Executive Director Robert L. Bixby. Castle and Tanner are Concord’s co-chairs; Bayh and Gregg serve on its Board of Directors.

“What I am more concerned about than anything is the lack of urgency by not only the public but by the politicians and the office-holders on these issues,” Tanner said.

Gregg said that if the president shows he is willing to “step on the toes” of some of his constituencies, the other party is more likely to do so with some of its constituencies.

Bixby suggested this perspective for candidates in the next presidential election: “In effect, the debt is your running mate. It’s going to be with you when you are elected, and you are going to have to do something with it.”

Coburn, Durbin Receive Economic Patriot Award

Sen. Dick Durbin (left) accepts his Economic Patriot Award from Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert L. Bixby.

Senators Dick Durbin and Tom Coburn received The Concord Coalition’s 2014 Paul E. Tsongas Economic Patriot Award last week in Washington for their strong advocacy of fiscal responsibility and their willingness to work towards bipartisan budget solutions.

Concord Executive Director Robert L. Bixby praised Coburn (R-Okla.) and Durbin (D-Ill.) for their dedication to fiscal reform -- including participation in the Senate’s “Gang of Six” efforts and their support on the Simpson-Bowles commission for its model deficit-reduction plan.

Durbin, the Senate’s majority whip, said in accepting the award that he particularly worries about the future of federal health care and retirement programs, noting “we only have a limited time to fix some of these programs or we’re going to reach a crisis, a catastrophe.”

Former senator Judd Gregg accepted the award on Coburn’s behalf, calling him “the conscience of the Congress on fiscal issues.”