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August 12th, 2011 11:59 am
Budget PROCESS Reforms

The reason Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan gave for begging off of the debt/budget “supercommittee” was because he wants to spend the fall trying to put together major reform of Congress’ budget process — the “how” of crafting the budget rather than the “what” of the budget, although of course the “how” has an absolutely huge effect on the “what.” While I really don’t see why Ryan can’t do both jobs — in fact, I think they should complement each other — it is absolutely admirable that Ryan is dedicated to procedural reforms. The process within Congress has been broken ever since liberals “fixed” it in response to President Nixon’s attempts to “impound” congressionally approved spending. The fix made the process overly complicated, and, despite its advertised aims, actually made it easier for spending to spiral out of control.

A number of thoughtful people have pushed (publicly or privately) budget-process reforms over the years, including two of the best congressmen of the 1990s, Bob Livingston and Chris Cox. In a future column (or several), I’ll gladly delve into the details of various ideas. For now, though, here’s what’s wrong: What was meant to provide multiple checks against overspending has instead created such a convoluted process that everything ends up dumped into mega-bills (“omnibus” legislation) or hurried, last-minute legislative action, or both at the same time. That, in turn, makes it more difficult for the public or for internal congressional budget hawks to discover, highlight, and defeat individual extravagances.

What happens now is that the Budget Committee provides a non-binding “resolution” in the spring with targets for spending within certain broad categories. The Ways and Means Committee handles policy on the major budget drivers, Social Security and Medicare. The Energy and Commerce Committee handles policy on Medicaid. “Authorizing” committees (Agriculture, Transportation, Armed Services, etcetera) handle policy questions on all sorts of federal programs, plus provide the spending parameters for those programs. But that authority doesn’t actually mean that the government, by law, will spend that money; such spending occurs (on discretionary, or non-entitlement, programs) only in an Appropriations bill. The Appropriations Committee, divided into 12 subcommittees, handles the actual spending bills, within the parameters set in the spring budget — if a budget actually has been passed, as by law it is supposed to be, but under the Democrats in the Senate has not been.

Got all that? That’s just the broad overview. The details are even more mind-numbing, and the process even more redundant than the overview would indicate.

In the end, the process should be streamlined, so that the triplicate overlapping of power between the Budget Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and the authorizing committees (not to mention the Ways and Means and E&C power over entitlements) is condensed. One of those three spending-power centers should be stripped of that spending power.

Frankly, as a former press secretary for the House Appropriations Committee, I found the whole system idiotic. What might be a surprise is that I think the best answer might be to eliminate the Appropriations Committee altogether, and instead set up special appropriations subcommittees within each authorizing committee, making those new committees both policy-making and appropriations bodies, with the responsibility (which the authorizers don’t have now) of staying strictly within the overall budget limits for the agencies controlled by each. In short, I would strengthen the Budget Committee’s enforcement powers, while consolidating policy and appropriating within the same set of expert committees. Meanwhile, the legislative schedule would be altered to a far more achievable set of deadlines, ones that also better take into account Congress’ “district work periods,” or “recesses.” Finally, I would severely limit the August recess, allowing no more than 17 days, rather than nearly a full month. With the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, it doesn’t make sense to interrupt so much actual legislating for such a long time. If Congress wants more time “off,” well, then, it should get its work done earlier in September, rather than bumping up against (or beyond, as is usually the case) the Sept. 30 deadline. If all budgetary work is done before Sept. 30, as a result of taking a shorter August recess, then the reward should be time off at the end of September and/or beginning of October. Otherwise, tough luck.

But that’s just me. All sorts of other people have other ideas. Paul Ryan wants to look into all of this, and create a process that actually makes sense. Good for him.

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