A Biennial Approach to Better Budgeting

Biennial budgeting was the subject of a recent Senate Budget Committee hearing, the second in a series on budget process. Testifying were Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), and Representative David Price (D-NC), as well as Mr. William G. Batchelder, the former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, and Mr. Robert L. Bixby, the Executive Director of the Concord Coalition.

CRFB generally supports the concept of biennial budgeting, although it is not a substitute for the difficult policy choices that must be made to address the long-term debt. CRFB President Maya MacGuineas has testified on multiple occasions before Congress on the matter. This past spring, she published a letter praising legislation introduced by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR). Rep. Ribble will testify when the House Budget Committee holds a hearing on biennial budgeting on Wednesday.

Below we will summarize the Senate hearing.

Chairman Michael Enzi (R-WY) began the hearing by expressing his support for biennial budgeting, explaining how it would provide lawmakers more time to review mandatory spending, and focus on the long term. He mentioned his biennial budgeting bill, which would have Congress consider half the appropriations bills each year, with the more controversial bills in non-election years. He also mentioned that he supports and has cosponsored Isakson’s bill.

Sen. Isakson made the case that Congress needs to have self-imposed restraint, using the example of his time in state government in Georgia, when they had a constitutional prohibitions on running deficits and meeting longer than 40 days. He said he has spoken with almost every single Senator about biennial budgeting, and that almost all non-appropriators support it privately. He added that while mandatory spending is important, we must reform Social Security and Medicare to control our debt.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) suggested looking to the states to determine the improvements needed in the budget process. He argued for biennial budgeting by pointing out to benefits such as long-term strategic planning, predictability, and more thorough program evaluation.

Rep. Price argued against biennial appropriations, but left room for a two-year budget resolution. He suggested it would make matters worse given that power would shift to the executive branch and congressional leadership, and supplemental appropriations would be common. He added that it would be impractical for agencies to make a request as much as 28 months in advance. He contended that the increased reprogramming requests would be undemocratic because they are approved by subcommittee chairs, with no debate or amendments.

In response to Price's concerns, Sen. Carper proposed trying biennial budgeting with one or two appropriations bills as a trial to see if it works.

Batchelder suggested that biennial budgeting would work at the federal level because it has in Ohio. He commented that it helped policymakers meet spending and budgeting timelines. Batchelder also noted how biennial budgeting aids in avoiding crisis budgeting by providing a system for emergencies and requiring foresight. Additionally, he highlighted the stability it would provide businesses and taxpayers.

Bixby pointed out how much sense biennial budgeting makes given that Congress already operates on two year cycles. He proposed that Congress establish priorities and funding levels in the first session and do long-term planning and conduct oversight in the second session. Bixby argued that having a regular budget process again would help restore the trust among the public, which he said will be needed to address entitlements and tax reform.

During the question and answer session, witnesses generally agreed that biennial budgeting would lead to a more effective budget process. Several argued that biennial budgeting would improve public trust and would save time on appropriations. They noted states where it has worked, and suggested a government performance task force.

Sen. Ayotte (R-NH) indicated that she did not think keeping annual appropriations would allow for the full benefit of biennial budgeting because appropriations take much more time than the budget resolution. Time, she argued, that could be used for oversight instead.

Sen. Portman (R-OH) said he supports biennial budgeting and engaged with the witnesses on the potential for increasing efficiency through more predictably in a two year process.

Sen. Whitehouse reiterated a point he made at last budget process hearing, that the points of order meant to enforce budget rules have become irrelevant because all bills now have a 60 vote threshold.

Sen. Kaine and Bixby both highlighted the need for biennial budgeting to reestablish credibility and to allow agencies to plan accordingly. Kaine also explained that this uncertainty trickles down to all levels of government, given a lot of federal funding goes to state and local entities. He added that two-year budget deals have come about under extraordinary circumstances--a government shutdown and Speaker of the House resigning. Therefore, he said, we can't count on them to continue and need to formalize the two-year process.

Sen. King (I-ME) argued that a two-year budget resolution with single year appropriations would be the most politically feasible, and asked Enzi if the budget committee is ready to markup a bill, given the consensus. Chairman Enzi responded that one more hearing would be held before putting a bill forward.

We commend the Senate Budget Committee for exploring ways to improve the budget process. Stay tuned to our blog for continuing coverage. To keep up with our thoughts on budget process, check out our Better Budget Process Initiative page.