Welcome Back Congress -- to the Latest Appropriations Mess

Congress returns this week for a lame-duck session during which members will face a huge mess—providing money to keep the lights on in the federal government. Lawmakers failed to enact any of the 12 annual appropriations measures before going home to campaign. This marks the 31st year out of the past 34 that Congress has relied on continuing resolutions to keep things running. But this year ranks among the most problematic. Congress failed to send President Obama ANY of the necessary spending measures.

Lawmakers now have a couple of choices—none of them good. They can pass another continuing resolution that simply funds the government at current levels; they could bundle several bills into omnibus legislation or they could let the government shut down while they haggle over what to do. In any event, members will not have time to make measured, well-reasoned decisions about priorities. They will be presented bills on a take-it-or-leave it basis, with the legislation often cobbled together, and containing any number of goodies to gain the requisite number of votes. How can this be the way we budget in the world’s largest economy?

It shouldn’t be. The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform has spent two years studying the budget process and last week issued a report outlining a new budget regime that would avoid this kind of mess in the future. The commission called on Congress to pass and the President to sign a Sustainable Debt Act early next year that would establish a revised budget process. This regime would ease the way for budget decisions to be made. Importantly, it would equip policymakers with the tools to make informed decisions about the budget.

It would, for example, establish a medium-term target to stabilize the debt and annual targets consistent with that goal. It would require House and Senate leaders, working through congressional Budget Committees, to shape a multi-year budget that would meet the statutory targets. And, it would contain a strong, comprehensive enforcement mechanism that would ensure that budgets meet the statute’s targets. At the end of each year, if budget legislation missed the target, automatic adjustments would be made—half spending cuts and half tax increases.

If the 112th Congress decides it does not have the stomach to deal with the inevitable end-of-year budget disasters and if it truly wants to attack the soaring federal debt, the commission provided a framework to achieve those goals.