Correcting the Record on the Enzi-Whitehouse Budget Reforms
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, the Senate Budget Committee voted 15 to 6 to approve the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act (BCoBRA), a bipartisan bill introduced by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), which would improve and overhaul the broken budget process. While the proposal received overwhelming support from senators on the Budget Committee, others outside the committee have been reluctant to lend their support based on concerns with the bill's new special reconciliation process.
Much of this opposition appears to reflect a misunderstanding – partially driven by a misleading letter issued by a collection of advocacy groups – of the proposal itself, which changed in important ways from the Chairman’s mark to the committee-approved bill.
Below, we debunk several false claims about the bill.
Claim #1: The BCoBRA "could force Congress to enact deep cuts to health care programs."
The Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act does not “force” any policy to take effect. It creates a process through which policymakers could choose to reduce deficits. That could be achieved through changes to costs of federal programs – health-related or otherwise – or through additional revenue. At each step, members could offer amendments or decide to halt the process altogether.
Moreover, in order for the committee to implement any reform plan, several things would need to happen. First, both chambers of Congress would need to agree on and adopt a budget resolution with debt-to-Gross Domestic Product (GDP) targets that would be set each budget cycle. This process generally involves both Budget Committees reporting their own versions of the budget resolution, which must be approved by their respective chambers before a compromise resolution can be negotiated and adopted by both chambers.
Then if, and only if, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the debt-to-GDP ratio will exceed the targets set in the budget resolution, could the Senate Budget Committee report a resolution providing reconciliation instructions to authorizing committees, which the full Senate would need to approve. Finally, before any policy changes could be enacted, those changes would need to be approved by relevant authorizing committees, combined and approved by the Budget Committee (if more than one committee is instructed), approved by both chambers of Congress, and signed into law by the President.
Claim #2: Special reconciliation "would result in spending cuts far greater than the deficit reductions required by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011's failed 'super committee.'"
The bill's special reconciliation provision has no automatic fallback (like sequestration) tied to the budget resolution’s debt targets. Both the size and composition of any potential deficit reduction would depend entirely on the goals Congress sets for itself and how it chooses to meet them. Again, policymakers would need to choose to move forward with such savings, just like with the current reconciliation process.
Claim #3: "Congress could pass immediate austerity measures under a budget reconciliation bill."
Congress already has this ability, both through the reconciliation and regular order processes. BCoBRA only enriches the budget context – both spending and revenue – for making fiscal policy decisions.
Claim #4: "If this provision had been in effect, every budget resolution since 2016 would have triggered [this] reconciliation process."
If BCoBRA had been in effect, budget resolutions would have been quite different because the reforms would have encouraged more realistic budgets. It is true that, in recent years, budget resolutions with ambitious deficit reduction goals have been proposed and lauded, only to be revealed later on as messaging documents once lawmakers failed to live up to those goals. BCoBRA establishes a method to show when lawmakers are not on track to meet their chosen budget goals.
Regardless of whether or not BCoBRA becomes law, voting on and passing budget resolutions or any subsequent changes in policy – including reconciliation – will always ultimately be a decision members of Congress make themselves.
Claim #5: Reconciliation would “ensure debt-reduction legislation passes quickly, all but guaranteeing that it will be a highly partisan process."
It is difficult to imagine a more partisan environment in Congress than the current one, which is why BCoBRA pushes in the opposite direction. BCoBRA promotes bipartisanship: it directly links budget resolutions to debt limit increases, and it creates an explicit bipartisan process to set consensus discretionary spending caps and otherwise ease the appropriations process.
Rather than ensuring quick passage, BCoBRA promotes consensus. It would allow traditional reconciliation in the first year of the biennium. Then, if lawmakers choose to do reconciliation in the second year – more than a year after the adoption of the budget resolution – they would need to adopt yet another resolution to establish instructions and then enact a bill with the policy changes.
Claim #6: Reconciliation "would also be likely to make recessions deeper and more frequent."
Congress would set debt-to-GDP targets with each new budget cycle, and any subsequent deficit reduction reconciliation instructions and legislation would be open to amendment on the Senate floor. Policymakers could account for economic conditions or other challenges by reducing, delaying, or conditioning budgetary changes. Congress could even decide to scrap reconciliation altogether. The claim that recessions would become “more frequent” is unsubstantiated and without basis.
Claim #7: "Downturns in the economy would cause CBO’s projected debt-to-GDP ratio to exceed the budget resolution figure, triggering deep cuts to critical health care programs."
It is true that economic weakness tends to increase debt projections. Nonetheless, a budget resolution could incorporate the effects of a recession, possibly even including rising debt-to-GDP targets. If a recession begins after a budget resolution is adopted, lawmakers would still have to actively choose reconciliation targets and subsequent policy changes. Members could decide whether or not to factor economic changes into the discussion of special reconciliation for federal spending and revenue levels. Any changes made through the reconciliation process would require the consent of congressional majorities at several steps and ultimately the President's as well.
Each major claim put forward in the letter opposing the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act is incomplete, misleading, or outright false. The legislation would move the budget process away from a partisan messaging exercise and toward responsible, bipartisan governance. It would not independently resolve our fiscal challenges. It would, however, foster a more collaborative process through which Congress could manage our budget priorities actively, rather than continue with our current haphazard, reckless, and meandering approach.