House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) outlined his recommendations for budget process reforms last week during a keynote lecture at an event hosted at the Brookings Institution and co-sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Following Price’s keynote, CRFB president Maya MacGuineas moderated a panel with James Wallner of the Heritage Foundation, Harry Stein of the Center for American Progress, Philip Joyce of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, and David Wessel of the Brookings Institution.
Price set the stage for his reform agenda by asserting that most of Washington’s gridlock is the result of our broken budget process. He drew particular attention to the fact that lawmakers have only fully funded the government on time once in the last 20 years and that only one of the last 60 appropriations bills has been passed on time.
The House Budget Committee solicited both insider and outsider perspectives during the development of the proposal. Price offered his reform agenda as a starting point for future legislation; although, if confirmed, he would leave Congress to become the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Price noted that budget process reform is a bipartisan issue with a lot of momentum, and he expects that another person will pick up the mantle and carry this issue forward. Representative Todd Rokita (R-IN), the Vice Chairman of the House Budget Committee, attended the event and spoke in favor of certain proposals Price offered. We have written on the budget process reform agenda of Price's Senate counterpart Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY), who explained his proposals at an event the CRFB hosted in September.
Below are the 6 issue areas and some policies Price presented during his keynote on Wednesday. Price thanked CRFB and Brookings for their work as the “driving force” behind much of his work, and some of his reforms overlap with those we have published as part of our Better Budget Process Initiative. You can read all of the recommendations with additional context over at the House Budget Committee website.
Enhancing Constitutional Authority: Price’s proposals to enhance constitutional authority include changing the fiscal year to the calendar year; switching the budget timetable so that Congress considers a budget resolution before the President submits a budget; developing a plan to ensure that unauthorized appropriations are reauthorized, with reductions in funding if they are not reauthorized; adopting biennial budgeting while still allowing annual budget resolutions; dividing action on appropriations bills to six two-year bills each Congress; and allowing multiple reconciliation bills, among other proposals.
Strengthening Budget Enforcement: Price recommends eliminating Congress’s ability to consider tax or spending bills unless a budget is passed, disallowing budgetary gimmicks that undermine paying for legislation, allowing for separate votes on budget act waivers for legislation violating the budget, broadening the base of programs that are subject to automatic budget enforcement procedures, and limiting the use of emergency funding to only apply during fiscal emergencies.
Reversing the Bias Toward Higher Spending: Price proposes to eliminate built-in inflation adjustment for discretionary programs and assumption of extensions for expiring mandatory programs in the baseline as well as the assumption that programs funded through trust funds like Medicare Part A, Social Security, and the Highway Trust Fund will continue to pay full benefits after trust fund exhaustion. He also recommends including interest effects in cost estimates of legislation and requiring earlier cost estimates prior to legislative mark-up.
Controlling Automatic Spending: Price recommends that Congress should be prohibited from creating new automatic spending programs outside of the budget process and proposed establishing binding targets for mandatory spending programs. He also discusses creating a mechanism to evaluate current automatic spending and whether it should be brought into the discretionary appropriations process.
Increasing Transparency: Among other things, Price proposes that the budget be made more transparent with clear, understandable descriptions that are easy to understand by the public and that the Comptroller General present a “Fiscal State of the Union” annually to lay out the fiscal challenges facing the country.
Price concluded by calling for a special commission to update budget concepts and examine different approaches to budgeting, including portfolio budgeting and capital budgeting.
MacGuineas began the panel discussion by noting that the budget process has often been used to avoid problems, but she commended Price for his effort to create a process that addresses many of the serious budgetary questions facing our nation. She then asked the panelists to assess the biggest problems they saw in the budget process.
Both Wallner and Stein argue that the biggest issues facing the budget process come from Congress’s inability to work together. For Wallner, the problem resides in Congress’s inability to form governing coalitions. For Stein, the problem is Congress’s lack of responsiveness to the American people. Stein criticized Price’s proposal for creating mechanisms which would result in cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. Joyce commented that Price’s proposal asks important questions, and Wessel suggested that Congress should focus more on the long term in its budget process. Wessel criticized Price’s proposal to align the fiscal year with the calendar year, because he thinks it forces budgetary policy into electoral politics.
The discussion then moved to the role of term limits on Congressional budget committees and the role the debt ceiling plays in budgetary decision-making. Joyce argued that the debt ceiling distracted from the real issues at stake in the budget process, and he suggested that Congress should focus on making tax expenditures more transparent. Joyce also thought that the baseline serves a useful purpose by making Congress determine what it should value and be doing in policy, and Wessel responded that baselines should be adjusted according to inflation.
House Budget Committee Vice Chairman Todd Rokita (R-IN) spoke from the audience in favor of Price’s proposal to remove the term limits for the budget committee. He also suggested that the budget committee should become its own committee by not receiving appointments from the House Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Rules Committees. Rokita disagreed with Joyce on the role of the debt ceiling, suggesting that it forces Congress to confront increases in debt and consider options for addressing it.
The conversation concluded with a discussion over the stakes of budget process reform. An audience question noted that this discussion, though abstract, often touches on the place of the social safety net among other national priorities. Both Wessel and MacGuineas mentioned that the competing claims made in budgetary debates indicate a need for balance. MacGuineas advocated a proportional response to budgetary issues that highlighted debt targets, gave Congress latitude for how to achieve those targets, and transparently involved the American people. She explained that everything must be in play if we want to find a solution to make our debt sustainable.
We commend Price and the House Budget Committee for taking a serious look at how to fix our broken budget process, and we look forward to seeing who might pick up this mantle in the new Congress.
To learn more about budget process reform, please take a look at our Better Budget Process Initiative.