Does Isakson's Biennial Proposal Fix Federal Budgeting Needs?

Published Apr 15, 2011. By Marcus K. Garner.

With the federal government on the cusp of a shutdown last week, Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson reminded his colleagues of his prescription for reducing spending and preventing another impasse.

“The only agency of the government that will work seamlessly through a shutdown, without any shortcoming or deficiencies, is Veterans Health Care,” Isakson said, speaking on the Senate floor. “That is because we biennially appropriate for that.”

Isakson, Democratic co-sponsor Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and a growing list of co-sponsors want Congress to pass a budget every two years, rather than every year. Despite a long history of indifference, the idea appears to be gaining support in key committees.

“Given the difficulty in recent years in passing a budget -– by both Democrats and Republicans -– particularly in election years, I have been more open to the idea of biennial budgeting,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota. “I look forward to working with Sen. Isakson on this issue."

The rationale is simple: "If you can plan and make things predictable, you will save money and improve the quality of your service,” Isakson explained. Another advantage, he said, is that Congress could “spend one of every two years doing oversight and find waste and find ways to do things better and less expensively.”

So how would biennial budgeting work?

Each March 15, the president would propose a budget for two years rather than one. In even-numbered years -- election years -- agencies would appear before Congress to justify their budgets. And in odd years, Congress would appropriate funding.

Nineteen states follow some form of this process now, including Nebraska, Connecticut, Texas and New Hampshire, where Shaheen served as governor for six years.

"It’s a whole lot easier to deal with a shortfall in revenue when you don’t have to turn around and produce another budget," she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Some budgeting experts say the idea works better in theory than practice.

"The first flaw: you can't just put a budget in place and sit around for two years,"  said Jim Horney, the vice president for fiscal policy at the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. "Conditions change: war, avian flu, changes in the economy."

On the other side, the Concord Coalition, a leading voice for fiscal responsibility, supports the idea -- as long as it is  "part of a larger package that looks at spending and revenues," said Cliff Isenberg, chief budget counsel for the group.

Sitting senators such as Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions and Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman, as well as former senators Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) have championed the idea.

"Things were just getting worse and worse in terms of time for hearings and oversight," said Domenici, who retired from the Senate in 2009.

Lawmakers of both stripes have supported the idea over the years, he said -- just not enough. Now, however, Isakson has backing from Senate Democrats Shaheen, Conrad, Mark Warner (D-Va.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.).

Isakson, who has pushed for this change since he joined the Senate in 2005, said he feels like its time has come.

"I think it's the right thing to do," he said.