It is not exactly news to say the Federal budget process is broken. Threats of government shutdowns and legislative duct tape have become the norm. What is news, however, is that Congress has voted to finally do something about it.
As part of the recent Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, Congress created the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, a temporary House-Senate committee to study ways to reform how Congress debates the country’s spending decisions. This type of committee is rare, and it presents an important opportunity for Members of Congress to reexamine their stewardship of their constituents’ money.
This may not sound like much at first blush, but this is the means by which almost all major reforms of Congress in the last 80 years have been accomplished. A Joint Committee on reform is bipartisan and bicameral and represents an opportunity for Congress to do something now, before the election, to get the budget process working again.
Eights Members from each Chamber will serve on this committee. The four top party leaders—the House Speaker and Minority Leader and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders—will each select four Members from their own Chamber to serve on this committee. The Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader will jointly nominate a co-chair and the House and Senate Minority Leaders will jointly nominate another co-chair. The leaders must nominate both the committee members and the co-chairs within 14 days of the enactment of the Bipartisan Budget Act. This sets the deadline on Friday, February 23.
The joint committee must meet for the first time no later than March 11, to satisfy the Bipartisan Budget Act’s requirement that the first session be held within 30 calendar days of the law’s enactment. The committee must hold at least five public meetings or hearings, and at least three of these must be hearings. The committee must vote on a report and legislative language to implement its recommendations no later than November 30 of this year. Although the committee could vote before then, the deadline is after the midterm elections, when the country will find out which party will control Congress next year. Unlike a typical committee report, a simple majority will not be sufficient for adoption. Rather, a majority of the Members from each party will need to vote in favor of it, a requirement that promotes bipartisan consensus.
Requiring a bipartisan majority for approval is one way the Bipartisan Budget Act promotes procedural reforms. Another is the expedited procedures it establishes for the Senate. The Bipartisan Budget Act refers the legislative language to the Senate Budget Committee, but it requires the Committee to report the bill within 7 session days, or else it is discharged from consideration. The Budget Committee also may not report any changes to the bill. Post-committee, the process is also expedited since the motion to proceed is limited. The motion to proceed is one way that the Senate moves to debate an item of business. For most legislation, there is no time limit on debate on the motion to proceed, so Senators may use that opportunity to filibuster. However, the Bipartisan Budget Act limits debate on the motion to proceed for a joint committee bill to 10 hours. Although Senators may not prevent a vote on the motion to proceed, the Act also sets the threshold for a successful motion at “three-fifths of Members duly chosen and sworn,” so at least handful of minority-party Senators must support having a full debate on the bill. (Three-fifths of all Senators supermajority required to invoke cloture to end a filibuster.) Senators may still filibuster the bill itself, even though they are unable to filibuster the motion to proceed. (The Bipartisan Budget Act does not establish special procedures for the House of Representatives. Today, before considering a major piece of legislation, the House sets the terms of debate by a simple majority, so its Members cannot filibuster.)
Why was the Joint Select Committee created?
Senator David Perdue of Georgia, one of the champions of the reform committee said, “The current budget process will never work. Since the budget process was established in 1974, Congress has only funded the government on time four times in the past forty-four years. As a result, our national debt is $20 trillion. Changing the budget process will not solve the debt crisis, but we will not solve the debt crisis until we change Congress’ broken budget process. The plan passed by the U.S. Senate today finally establishes a select committee that will work towards fixing the broken budget process.”
House Budget Committee Chairman Steve Womack succinctly captured why a reform committee is necessary: “The passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act acknowledges that the current budget and appropriations process is not working.” Congress regularly fails to adhere to the budget process as prescribed by current law. Each year, Congress should adopt a budget resolution (which sets out financial goals for the year) and 12 individual appropriations bills before the beginning of the next fiscal year (October 1). Each year, Congress fails to enact one or more of these pieces of legislation and instead relies on a series of temporary spending bills rather full-year appropriations bills. Instead of 12 separate appropriations bills for different government functions, Congress often adopts a single bill for all categories of discretionary spending. Additionally, in 2013 and 2018, the government shut down for multiple days because Congress and the President were unable to enact spending legislation before funding ran out. If the current budget process laid out in the House and Senate rulebooks is the benchmark, Congress is failing miserably.
Is this a redux of the 2011 Supercommittee?
Some have compared the new Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform to the 2011 Supercommittee, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, a panel that was tasked with cutting spending by $1.5 trillion over the course of a decade. The Supercommittee failed to approve a plan, let alone see it through to enactment. This makes people wonder if the new Joint Select Committee will fare the same. Although there is no guarantee of success, the new Joint Select Committee will likely fare better than the Supercommittee did since the two have different goals. The Supercommittee was supposed to reform the country’s fiscal policy, whereas this new panel must fix its budget process. Fiscal policy carries with it deep partisan divisions that do not necessarily characterize procedural reforms. Biennial budgeting, for instance, enjoys support amongst Members of both parties, whereas deficit reduction through raising tax rates does not. It’s more likely that both Republicans and Democrats could coalesce around new or different procedures than they would around ways to reduce the deficit.
Aside from the fact that the two have different goals, the Supercommittee is not the best parallel for the new Joint Select Committee. A much better comparison is the previous Joint Committees on the Organization of Congress, which met in 1945-1946, 1965-1966, and 1992-1993 to study ways to reform Congress as a whole. They were like the new Joint Select Committee in that they were bipartisan, bicameral vehicles to consider ways to reform Congress. They differed from the new panel in that they had a wider scope (the entirety of the Legislative Branch, rather than just budget reform) and they were only given the authority to report recommendations, not legislative language. (The Joint Committee Members, however, later turned their recommendations into legislative language and introduced bills on congressional reform.)
Unlike the Supercommittee, each of the Joint Committees on the Organization of Congress succeeded in reforming various aspects of the legislative process. The first two Joint Committees resulted in the Legislative Reorganization Acts of 1946 and 1970. The third Joint Committee did not result in a Legislative Reorganization Act, but the House adopted many of the panel’s proposals once the Republicans took control of the Chamber following the 1994 midterm elections. If the Joint Committees on the Organization of Congress are the models that the new committee follows, there is ample reason to expect that it will have some degree of success in reforming the budget and appropriations process.
What reform options are available to the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform?
The new Joint Select Committee has another thing going for it: Many people have already made suggestions on how to improve the budget and appropriations process. Some ideas have come from within Congress. For example, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Representative Rodney Davis of Illinois recently introduced legislation to eliminate government shutdowns. Earlier this Congress, Senator Johnny Isakson and Representative Luke Messer introduced bills to implement biennial budgeting. Members of the public have also weighed in on budget reform. For instance, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform suggested adopting a biennial budgeting as well. Not to mention, we’ve offered a number of suggestions on how to improve the budget process, including biennial budgeting (it seems there’s a trend here). There will be no shortage of budget reform ideas for the Members to consider.
And finally, there is a political reality that makes the timing of this Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform perfect. The election in November is a jump ball. There is a realistic possibility that either party could be in control of either Chamber when the ballots are counted. This means legislators know going into the committee sessions that they might have to live with these reforms as a Member of the minority party in the House or Senate. This gives them a meaningful incentive to create reforms that can work for all Members of the House and Senate.
This is the most important opportunity to enact meaningful budget reform in decades. Skeptics might think that Congress will once again pass on the opportunity to act, but neither party benefits from a broken process where authorization bills are rarely considered and appropriations bills are lumped into one giant mass that is impossible to read or comprehend. Now is the chance to do something to fix the broken budget process. Let’s hope both parties seize the moment.
UPDATE: Congressional leaders have announced the Members who will serve on the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform. The House Republicans are Representative Steve Womack, Representative Pete Sessions, Representative Rob Woodall, and Representative Jodey Arrington. The House Democrats are Representative Nita Lowey, Representative John Yarmuth, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, and Representative Derek Kilmer. The Senate Republicans are Senator Roy Blunt, Senator David Perdue, Senator James Lankford, and Senator Joni Ernst. The Senate Democrats are Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator Michael Bennet, Senator Brian Schatz, and Senator Mazie Hirono.
Representative Womack will serve as the Chairman, and Representative Nita Lowey will serve as the Co-Chair.
Photo Credit: Juanedc, via Flickr
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.