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Op-Ed

Scrap the budget circus in Washington

Instead of reform, a 1974 law gave us today's dysfunctional federal process.

By Douglas Olin

December 10, 2013

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As Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) work toward yet another makeshift budget deal, they should do us all a favor and instead just scrap the congressional budget process.

Before 1974, Congress had no formal budget process. In those days, the president would submit an annual budget to Congress. In keeping with our system of checks and balances, it was the duty of congressional authorizing committees to draft legislation to establish, continue or modify federal programs, and the appropriations committees were responsible for reviewing funding needs and appropriate annual amounts. This process wasn't without its problems, but it worked.

In 1974, the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act was signed into law. The impetus was not the need to create a new budget process. The bill was mainly a response to President Nixon's rejection of congressionally approved spending through a process known as impoundment.

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The new law gave Congress final authority over any decisions to rescind appropriated funds. But it went beyond placing congressional limits on impoundment; it created new procedures whereby Congress was to adopt annual budget resolutions, formed new budget committees in the House and Senate, and created the Congressional Budget Office.

In the early years of the budget committees, the hope was that the new process would create a strategic blueprint for federal spending, allowing transparent trade-offs between competing federal priorities and an orderly process for achieving that end. The president is still required to produce and submit an annual budget to Congress. However, under the law, Congress was given the tools and authority to take center stage.

The problem is that it simply didn't work.

The skyrocketing deficits of the Reagan era ignited an ongoing war over deficit spending, steering government away from meaningful debate on policy priorities and program review in favor of "formula-based budgeting," in which arbitrary deficit reduction targets became more important than the effective financial management of individual government programs.

The best evidence of this was the development of the so-called sequestration process. Designed by Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) and Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.) in the mid-1980s, sequestration was a mechanism that, absent a balanced budget agreement, would levy across-the-board cuts on government programs regardless of merit or common sense. Sequestration was then, and is now, considered so arbitrary and capricious that it would function as a kind of gun to the head of Congress, forcing budgetary compromise that would lead to deficit reduction.

Of course, that didn't work either. Instead of reordering national priorities, reducing the deficit, creating an orderly budget process, curbing spending or reducing the need for continuing resolutions, the congressional budget process has led to an obsessive focus on deficit politics, the embrace of forecasting gimmickry, the effective placement of "budget" politics over effective governance and an overall weakening of effective management and oversight of government.

As professor Eric Patashnik of the University of Virginia once observed, the real impact of the budget process has been to create a "fiscalization" of policy, whereby "programs are routinely debated not in terms of their substantive merits but rather of their budgetary impact."

Over the years, the hard work of program review, policy choices and legislative oversight has languished. Not only have the congressional budget committees been dragged down into this morass, they have taken the congressional authorizing and appropriations processes down with them.

Routine authorizing legislation has become intermittent at best, leading to a strategy of legislating through the budget process or attaching authorizing language to appropriations bills. Authorizing committees fail to review and reauthorize programs because they don't have the time or expertise to navigate the byzantine budget process. In the end they don't have to, since Congress is all too happy to waive its own rules to allow spending to continue regardless of authorizing legislation.

Budget reconciliation bills are intended to adjust entitlement programs and tax levels without making these measures subject to the regular legislative process. Instead, the leadership uses the reconciliation process to enact changes to existing law in a manner that is neither transparent nor open to normal debate and amendment. It is a process unforeseen when the budget act became law.

The appropriations committees have moved from their traditional role as guardians of the purse to become advocates for an increased share of the fiscal pie, regardless of merit. Continuing resolutions had little practical consequence until 1980, when the Justice Department concluded that federal agencies must shut down absent an appropriation at the beginning of the fiscal year.

Now, the absence of a budget agreement leaves the appropriations committees in a kind of limbo, with a full or partial government shutdown looming. In the last 37 years, there have been only four years in which all appropriations bills were passed and signed into law before the beginning of the fiscal year. And we wonder why government doesn't work.

At the heart of our dysfunctional Congress is a budget process that is badly broken. It is doing us all a disservice, and it needs to be scrapped.

Douglas Olin, an attorney and a consultant in Los Angeles, was assistant staff director of the Senate Budget Committee from 1984 to 1996. Before that, he worked for the Office of Management and Budget.