Rep. Tom McClintock Proposes Changes to Improve Budget Enforcement

As House Republicans continue to discuss the Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 budget resolution, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) has recommended budget process reforms in exchange for supporting the budget with FY 2017 discretionary spending of $1.070 trillion, as agreed to in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.
These changes would increase accountability and transparency in the budget process and improve fiscal discipline. Specifically, he proposed four reforms to House and/or Republican conference rules to improve budget discipline:

  • Amend the House rules to allow reductions in mandatory spending in the appropriations bills
  • Restore a point of order against unauthorized appropriations
  • Restore a point of order against appropriations that exceed the budget
  • Forbid an expansion of mandatory spending similar to the moratorium on earmarks

The first proposed change, allowing mandatory savings to be included in appropriations bills, would provide an opportunity for Congress to annually consider mandatory savings as part of must-pass legislation. Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) recently pointed out that the budget process permits mandatory spending reductions through budget reconciliation, but recent budget resolutions have failed to use that tool to enact mandatory savings other than ACA repeal.

Recent press reports suggest that the budget prepared by House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) calls for a reconciliation bill or other legislation reducing mandatory spending. Any such mandatory reform bill should be brought to the House floor under an open rule that allows for amendments to further reduce mandatory spending. If such a mandatory reform passes the House and the Senate fails to act, the House should attach the reform legislation to a House appropriations bill.

Of note, appropriations bills routinely include changes in mandatory spending programs (CHIMPs) meant to achieve savings, but most of these CHIMPs do not achieve real savings. CHIMPs often delay spending for a year or rescind funds that were unlikely to be spent, while the difference is used to offset spending above limits. Presumably Rep. McClintock would only apply to permanent changes in mandatory programs that produce real savings.

On the second proposed change, there already is a House rule against appropriating funds for unauthorized programs, but Rep. McClintock emphasizes that the rule is routinely waived. An unauthorized program is not necessarily a low-priority or wasteful program, and indeed, Rep. McClintock acknowledges that certain key functions of government currently have expired authorizations. Nonetheless, the authorization process allows lawmakers to periodically review programs, evaluate how they are working, and make changes that update and improve them as necessary. Unauthorized programs escape this valuable scrutiny. Rep. McClintock proposes to require approval of a majority of the Republican conference to waive the point of order against unauthorized appropriations. An alternative approach which could be included in House rules would be to require chairmen of authorizing committees to submit a letter to the Appropriations Committee requesting appropriations for unauthorized programs within their jurisdiction with justification for funding the program and plans for action on authorizing legislation.

For the third proposal, Section 311 of the Congressional Budget Act already prohibits considering legislation that violates spending levels in the budget resolution, but this rule is often waived for budget busting legislation, particularly end-of-the-year deals. Enforcement of this rule could be strengthened by prohibiting the Rules Committee from waiving the point of order against spending or revenues that don’t comply with budget limits as part of a blanket waiver of all points of order and providing for a separate vote devoted solely to waiving a point of order for violating budget levels. This approach would be similar to the point of order in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act.

Finally, although House rules do not prohibit the consideration of legislation that authorizes new or expanded mandatory spending, the existing “CUTGO” rule in the House prohibits legislation which would increase in mandatory spending on net by requiring any increase in mandatory spending be offset by a reduction in mandatory spending. This rule has been waived at least 25 times since it was enacted in 2011. Last year it was waived for legislation increasing mandatory spending to replace the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate as well as increased mandatory spending from refundable tax credits in the tax extenders and omnibus legislation. As with the point of order for violating levels in the budget resolution above, this rule could be strengthened through a rule prohibiting the Rules Committee from waiving the CUTGO point of order and requiring a separate vote to wave.

A budget resolution is only as good as the will to enforce it. Addressing the issues raised by Rep. McClintock would make the budget resolution more credible by making it more likely that the budget is implemented and enforced.