Congressional Caucus Rules Can Promote Better Budgeting
The rules establishing each party’s self-governance within Congress can affect federal budget practices. Changing them could improve the climate for budget decisions.
Each party conference selects leaders and considers revisions to its rules soon after the general election, sometimes the following week. Senate Republican Conference Rules, House Democratic Caucus Rules, and House Republican Conference Rules are public (Senate Democratic Caucus Rules remain private). These rules guide the selection of party and committee leaders, committee members, and policy priorities.
Whether Congress is more of a bottom-up, committee-driven institution or a leadership-driven institution, as the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has discussed, is influenced by these rules. Options to help the rules better promote fiscal responsibility are described below.
Strengthen Budget Committees
The budget resolution is intended to be the framework for all tax and spending legislation in a fiscal year, but in practice it is written with little formal input or buy-in from committee chairs or leaders who are responsible for specific fiscal policies. In 2018, the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform adopted an amendment to include the chairs and ranking members of the Appropriations and Finance committees on the Senate Budget Committee, although agreement ultimately broke down on the broader set of proposals. We too have recommended including committee leaders, as has the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution. Caucus rule changes can make this happen.
Enforce the Budget Resolution
In addition to involving more senior members in the development of the budget resolution, as above, conference and caucus rules could establish a duty for party and committee chairs to adhere to the budget resolution (except in the case of true emergencies). The budget resolution sets total spending levels and sends allocations to committees: annual discretionary spending to the Appropriations Committee and direct spending for the authorizing committees. Committee chairs could be expected to ensure that they remain within their allocations, and the Budget Committee could track adherence, as a provision of the Enzi-Whitehouse proposal would require and the Senate Budget Committee now does.
The House and Senate both have rules to prohibit deficit-increasing legislation in addition to the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010. Unfortunately, repeated violations of the letter and spirit of PAYGO have made a bad budget outlook worse. Congress should strengthen these rules. Conference and caucus rules can establish an obligation for committee leaders — committee and subcommittee chairs (or ranking members) — to ensure that measures to reduce revenue or increase spending are fully offset. If offsets are in another committee’s jurisdiction, the originating committee could provide detailed recommendations instead of legislative language and refer the measure to the committee(s) of jurisdiction.
Congress’s failure to comprehensively review all programs periodically means that many are out-of-date and riddled with problems. For example, the Executive Branch sometimes creatively interprets vague statutory provisions to give purported legal justification for actions that members of Congress did not intend to allow. Committee leaders could be expected to review, update, and reauthorize programs within their jurisdictions, and party leaders could be obligated to ensure their floor consideration.
Elevate the Budget Outlook
Rather than being out-of-sight and out-of-mind, the federal government’s fiscal position should be a recurring theme at conference and caucus meetings. The Budget Committee chair or ranking member could give an overview of the budget outlook at the organizational meetings before each Congress and periodically as major reports are published or when fiscally significant measures are on the agenda.
Members of each conference or caucus could strengthen these expectations by incorporating them into decisions for party and committee leadership positions. Individual members who support and practice these standards could become the leaders toward a brighter fiscal future.
Pursuing reforms soon after a general election is challenging, but opportunities exist. At the same time, rules are not self-enforcing. Setting expectations is more like applying gentle pressure than creating hard-and-fast rules. Even so, they can help members remind each other to stay on track and can contribute to improving the fiscal culture in Congress.