Bipartisan Senate Bill Seeks Major Reforms in Budget Process

November 4, 2019 Updated: November 4, 2019

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and committee member Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced the “Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act” to provide “a more orderly, deliberative budget process focused on long-term fiscal planning.”

Enzi and Whitehouse added in a statement announcing their proposal that they believe “it would end the brinksmanship surrounding the debt limit and encourage bipartisan collaboration in tackling our growing debt and deficits.”

Co-sponsors for the proposal include Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Angus King (I-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), David Perdue (R-Ga.), John Kennedy (R-La.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), and Mike Braun (R-Ind.).

The proposal’s introduction follows last week’s announcement by the Department of the Treasury that the federal budget deficit for fiscal year 2019 is $984 billion.

The annual deficit figure could exceed $1 trillion as more complete expenditure figures are received by the Treasury from federal departments, agencies, and commissions.

The federal government collected $3.5 trillion in tax revenues for 2019, a 4 percent gain over 2018, but spending exceeded $4.4 trillion, an 8 percent increase.

The official forecast for fiscal year 2020 is that the government will collect $3.6 trillion in revenues and spend $4.7 trillion, creating an annual deficit in excess of $1 trillion.

“Today’s report shows that our nation’s current fiscal path is unsustainable. In the last 12 months, the federal deficit has surged more than 26 percent,” Enzi said after the Treasury report was released.

“While the federal government’s revenue continues to grow, spending is growing twice as fast. It is time to change the way we do things in Washington. We simply cannot afford to continue ignoring the fiscal challenges our nation faces,” Enzi said.

Officially, the federal budget is determined each year by Congress according to procedures described in the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974.

The budget act created the current Senate and House budget committees, made the federal fiscal year begin on Oct. 1 instead of July 1, set up the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to provide independent spending data, and established deadlines for congressional committees to decide how much to appropriate to each budget line item, and for Congress to approve the overall budget for signature by the president.

The process worked well for some years, but in recent decades has increasingly failed to produce the strengthened congressional budget oversight promised by the law’s backers.

Federal spending and deficits have climbed steadily despite repeated subsequent reform attempts by Congress, such as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, and the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Those measures variously set spending targets, with penalties for failure to meet them, but Congress has repeatedly set aside the penalties or changed the targets, with a result that the budget process has become increasingly little more than a series of continuing resolutions, temporary government shutdowns, and partisan gridlock.

The Enzi–Whitehouse reform package includes provisions designed to:

  • Move the government to a two-year budget cycle while retaining the current annual appropriations.
  • Require Senate spending and taxation committees to submit detailed spending and revenue plans, including actions to eliminate unauthorized expenditures (“zombie programs”), and to implement recommendations by Inspectors General and the Government Accountability Office (GA).

Zombie programs are programs that received congressional authorization in the past that have since expired without renewal. But according to the CBO, Congress has continued to fund nearly 1,000 such programs, worth more than $307 billion. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held a subcommittee hearing on zombie spending Nov. 1.

  • Rename the Senate Budget Committee to the “Committee on Fiscal Control and the Budget,” and require it to submit an annual spending resolution with detailed deficit reduction plans.
  • Create a mechanism within the budget process to link projected federal debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
  • Institute an optional bipartisan budget pathway to set spending and deficit reduction levels with the votes of at least 60 senators, including at least 15 from the minority party.
  • Revise Senate rules to cap the total hours allowed to debate budget resolutions, while assuring that all senators have opportunities to offer amendments.

Fixing the congressional budget process has been a preoccupation of Enzi, who has been chairman of the budget committee since 2015.

In a Sept. 25 statement, he said, “The threat of a fiscal crisis is not something anyone should take lightly. As a father and grandfather, this is a concern that keeps me up at night.

“What kind of burden are we placing on our children and grandchildren, who could face a future of less growth and economic opportunity, as a result of our refusal to make difficult fiscal decisions? Congress should be working together with the Administration now to begin the long process of a fiscal course correction.”

A draft text of the Enzi–Whitehouse proposal wasn’t available Nov. 4, but the bill is scheduled to be marked up Nov. 6 in the budget committee.

Contact Mark Tapscott at mark.tapscott@epochtimes.nyc

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