Even casual observers of today’s federal budget process can see it is badly broken.
Congress has repeatedly failed to pass budget resolutions. Failure to pass appropriations bills has become the norm, forcing lawmakers to rely on continuing resolutions, bills that simply extend prior spending regardless of shifting priorities. And efforts to negotiate legislation on a long-term fiscal plan are non-existent.
These failures enhance the argument to shift towards a “biennial” budget process that would produce funding legislation for two years at a time rather than one. Under biennial budgeting, Congress would set spending and revenue levels and complete appropriations bills in the first year of each Congress, and the second year would be used to conduct greater oversight of federal programs and ideally focus on long-term fiscal challenges.
Advocates of this approach received some heartening news recently: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) indicated his willingness to bring to the House floor a biennial budget reform bill that was originally introduced by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wisc.) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore).
Twenty states make use of a biennial budgeting process in some form, and every administration since Ronald Reagan’s has endorsed the concept for the federal government.
It’s easy to see why, for several reasons.
For one, today’s budget process rarely operates as intended. Congress is supposed to complete 12 appropriations bills by the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1, but this hasn’t happened in 20 years.
Even a fully functioning appropriations process, however, would only focus on roughly one-third of the federal budget: automatic spending programs like Social Security and Medicare account for much of the rest but do not require annual approval by Congress.
A longer-term budget would give Congress more time to focus its attention on the real drivers of growing federal deficits: aging demographics, rising health care costs and an inefficient tax code.
The House and Senate should also devote more time to oversight of spending programs already in place, and a biennial budgeting cycle would encourage such accountability. With the second year providing time for more oversight hearings, lawmakers could have more data and insight to make more judicious decisions on federal spending.
Congress has already moved in the direction of biennial budgeting in practice in recent years. The Murray-Ryan agreement of 2013 and the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 both made efforts to set caps on spending for the discretionary side of the budget for two years.
These efforts, particularly the 2013 agreement, were good-faith attempts to set longer-term spending targets and provide stability and certainty to a process sorely lacking both.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) once wrote in a paper examining biennial budgeting “the central rationale for biennial budgeting is that it would improve the efficiency of the Congressional budget process.” Frustration with the budget process, CBO wrote, “is high: it is time consuming, target dates are often missed, and repetitive decisions are made.”
That was written in 1987, years before most of today’s lawmakers took office.
Almost three decades later, it’s time for Congress to finally give biennial budgeting the vote and passage it deserves.