Government shutdowns over the budget have become more frequent in recent years. Some of that is happening because of partisan gridlock in Congress, but it’s also partially because the budget process itself is in dire need of an overhaul.
Over the past few years, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been working to reform the Congressional budget process to bring it more in line with current processes and create more opportunities for success when it comes to passing the budget each year. In 2018, they put forward the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act, the first budget overhaul proposal to make it out of committee since 1990.
Congress currently operates according to rules set by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, and the world has changed a lot in the nearly 50 years since then. Necessary spending on programs like Medicare and Social Security has grown, as has partisanship in Congress.
A 2015 proposal from The Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, explains how the current process calls for agreement on a budget resolution and passage of individual bills to be signed by the president before the next fiscal year begins. Increased polarization makes this increasingly difficult to achieve each year, which is why the country increasingly finds itself on the brink of a government shutdown as the budget process grinds to a halt over partisan disagreements.
The Congressional Budget Reform Act calls for shifting to a two-year budget cycle, which would allow more time for debate and discussion of fiscal priorities while allowing essential government services to continue functioning. Part of the logic of such a shift, as the American Action Forum points out, is that Congress has essentially already been doing this since 2013.
“Formalizing this process would introduce some needed order to the current broken system,” AAF Director of Fiscal Policy Gordon Gray wrote in a 2019 article. “The president’s budget would also be submitted earlier, allowing the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to consolidate several winter budget reports into a single annual scoring baseline – a useful change.”
The Act also calls for a new budget reconciliation process aimed at reducing deficits, as well as a regular required reporting of the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio as part of the budgeting process. It also aims to make the budgeting process more bipartisan, providing expedited consideration for a budget resolution that has support from at least 15 members of the minority party in the Senate.
Hearings on the Congressional Budget Reform Act were last held in 2018. At that time, members of Congress from both parties felt good about the progress being made, but it’s unclear where the measure will go from here. “We had a very informative and useful session this morning on the history of the budget process with some top experts from the Congressional Research Service,” said co-chair Nita Lowey (D-NY). “I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Joint Select Committee to continue to explore the budget and appropriations processes.” In 2019, Lowey announced that she would not seek re-election this year.
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