Each year, millions of Hispanic households face the necessity of coming up with a basic family budget in order to make ends meet. Whether it’s paying for school supplies, utilities, food, or health coverage, the challenge is clear: making sure expenses do not exceed income. The key to success in winning this challenge lays mainly in the capacity of families to plan ahead and carefully evaluate their expenses. This often means prioritizing needs, cutting back on non-essentials, and making sure hard earned dollars are used in the best way possible. It’s a difficult process, but it pays off. Our government should be no different. Congress too should carefully go through their list of expenses and figure out how to make the best use of taxpayers’ money. But unfortunately, when it comes to financial planning, Congress is not setting a good example.
On April 20th, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing to explore solutions for fixing the broken federal budget process and restoring stability to government operations. During the hearing, the committee’s chairman, Senator Mike Enzi, highlighted how many aspects of the current federal budget process are riddled with uncertainty. Sen. Enzi noted that the budget resolution Congress is tasked to pass each year should serve as a long-term planning instrument to signal to the country how Congress will allocate taxpayer money. Unfortunately, the current budget process has largely failed to achieve this goal. Also, as highlighted in the committee hearing, the federal budgeting process is so broken that Congress has not passed each annual appropriations bill through regular order in over 20 years. However, Sen. Enzi has an idea with the potential to break this negative trend.
Chairman Enzi wants to reform how Congress plans for government expenditures and move the federal budget process from a one-year to a two-year schedule. While not a silver bullet, moving to a two-year federal budget could potentially have some positive consequences on the process. As highlighted by the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), the current practice of requiring adoption of a budget resolution every year results in Congress having essentially the same debate twice each Congress. And while in general more debate on the budget would be beneficial, CRFB notes that:
“since the partisan composition of Congress is unchanged between the first and second session of Congress, there is little to no reason to expect a different outcome on major macro-budget priorities such as the appropriate levels of spending, revenues, and deficits. The budget resolution in the second session of Congress is often much more difficult to pass than the first since it must be passed during an election year. Indeed, Congress has failed to pass complete budget resolutions in seven of the last nine election years. Work to develop two resolutions each Congress delays consideration of other important matters including actual legislation”.
The CRFB proposes to adopt biennial budgeting, where budgets are passed every other year. Under this proposal, CRFB explains, Congress would pass a comprehensive budget resolution setting the budget’s overall level of spending and other budget policies in the first year of the two-year Congressional cycle. CRFB even suggests that there could be a formalized process for expedited consideration of amendments to the budget resolution in the second year to accommodate any new legislative priorities, including additional measures to reduce the deficit, or addressed a changing fiscal environment without restarting policy battles that were settled in the budget resolution adopted in the prior year. Most importantly, this proposal could give Congress more to time to review spending and exercise the necessary oversight to understand which programs work and which do not.
The biennial budgeting proposal is an interesting idea. But setting aside the question of whether to support the proposal itself, this issue invites a serious discussion of the way the federal budgeting process is done. Too often, Congress governs by crisis, lurching from fiscal cliff to fiscal cliff. Parties are able to hold the federal budget hostage as a political ploy in order to pass their own pet pieces of legislation, and frequently push their opponents into tight situations in order to get what they want. The result is an increasingly politicized, bloated, and imperfect federal budget that doesn’t reflect voters’ preferences or even the preferences of the legislators that wrote it. Overall, Congress must move away from the type of crisis mode that dominates the current budget process, and try to practice the type of long-term thinking that is necessary to restore the fiscal health of our country. Fixing our broken federal budget process should be Congress’ priority number one.