Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget

Sens. Isakson and Shaheen Renew Call for Biennial Budgeting

Jan 31, 2011 | Budget Process

Late last week, Senators Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced legislation to revamp our budgeting process from an annual to a biennial process. Sen. Isakson has introduced this legislation each year since 2005, when he first came to the Senate, and Sen. Shaheen managed biennial budgets during her time as governor of New Hampshire, which has long utilized biennial budgets. The bipartisan bill (S. 211) is also co-sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Sen. John Thune (R-SD), and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA).

The bill envisions a two-year cycle in which a budget for the cycle is approved one year and the next year is devoted to oversight of federal spending. Sen. Isakson's statement explains:

S.211 would convert the federal budget process from an annual, chaotic spending event to a two-year, thoughtful process that would require Congress to conduct oversight. It would mandate that the first year of a Congress be dedicated to appropriating federal dollars while the second year is devoted to scrutinizing federal programs to determine if they are working and deserve to continue to be funded. This budget reform would force Congress to become better stewards of the taxpayers’ money, thereby reducing reckless and wasteful spending.

Congress has repeatedly failed to pass the 12 annual spending bills on time and frequently has resorted to passing omnibus bills at the last minute instead of debating each spending bill individually. Last year, Congress failed to complete work on a single one of the 12 appropriations bills before adjourning for the year. Since 1980, Congress has only twice completed the entire appropriations process before October 1.

The legislation opens an essential debate in Congress on transforming the budget process. The dysfunction of the current process has been borne out by the inability of Congress to produce a coherent budget in a timely fashion - or as in last year's case - at all. Moreover, not only is budget reform needed to improve the effectiveness and transparency of the process, it can also complement the policy changes that will be required to put the country on a sound fiscal course.

In her testimony before the House Rules Subcommittee on Legislation and Budget Process in 2005, CRFB President Maya MacGuineas pointed out:

[B]iennial budgeting could help to improve deficit reduction efforts. Deficit reduction targets of a longer time period would allow for more gradual phase-ins of the changes, which in turn make them more likely to be adopted and adhered to. Furthermore, there would be fewer opportunities for special interests to lobby for budget busting exemptions and special projects.

As we have often noted, the United States needs to develp a fiscal plan now with medium- and long-term goals that will put us on the path to fiscal sustainability. Pairing a budget process overhaul with such a plan will better ensure that fiscal targets are properly set and enforced. The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform offered a blueprint for reform that utilizes targets and triggers to implement a fiscal strategy.

We commend Senators Isakson and Shaheen as well as the co-sponsors of this bill for highlighting the need to fix our broken budget process and for advancing a thoughtful solution. While budget process reform alone will not solve our fiscal problems, as part of a comprehensive fiscal plan it can help significantly in bringing our debt and deficits under control.