Autonomous reconciliation must end | The hill
Beyond most glaring problems along with the budget reconciliation package currently under consideration in Congress, it also demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that the Congressional budget process is a mess.
Under the Congressional Budget and Imoundment Control Act of 1974, reconciliation should have been passed in June with bipartisan votes to reduce deficits. The annual appropriations were supposed to be finalized in July, but they won’t be until at least December. By then, Congress must increase the debt ceiling again.
The central root of this dysfunction is to view appropriations separately from expenditure and direct revenue (sometimes referred to as compulsory). In contrast, many states use “unified budgets” jointly manage all fiscal policies. These states are empowered to adjust priorities on a regular basis. They can make difficult but necessary decisions. The Congressional budget process does no such thing.
Reconciliation is shattered
As I write in a new report, reconciliation is a twisted shadow of its purpose. Congress intended to manage direct spending and revenue policies holistically, in coordination with discretionary spending, and to control imbalances. It requires a simple majority of senators instead of the usual 60 votes. Congress successfully passed a deficit-reducing reconciliation in the 1980s and 1990s.
Reconciliation began to derail in the late 1990s. Republicans in Congress sought to return large surpluses to taxpayers instead of using them to increase government spending. This effort failed, but it implemented (post-surplus) tax cuts in 2001, 2003 and 2017. Democrats played reconciliation for the expansion of health programs in 2010 and the so-called response to the pandemic in 2021.
Reconciliation is now a polarizing tool of the unified government – albeit a narrow one – to force sweeping policy changes while suppressing the minority party altogether. The proposals are prepared in advance by the leaders of the majority parties and the chairmen of the committees. Even members of the majority party have only as much influence as their threats to abstain from voting do. The result is often tenuous and ill-conceived victories.
But this is understandable. Competitive party politics and a leader-dominated Congress mean that members matter most as long as they can get the blessing of majority party leaders for their initiatives. Like representing Tom coleThomas (Tom) Jeffrey Cole Your must-read holiday book list for members of the House of Congress sets up Senate shutdown showdown House passes giant social policy and climate measure MORE (R-Okla.) Said in November 2020, âThe job of the majority is to govern. The job of the minority is to become the majority.
Unified budgets can restore sound management
Creating a stand-alone reconciliation was a mistake. Instead, Congress should consolidate it into a single âunified budgetâ each year.
The organization of the committee would not change. Budget committees would continue to draft a budget resolution with the support of all other committees.
The main change would take place in the House Appropriations Committee. It would assemble unified budgets by combining its appropriation legislation with reconciliation-type submissions from other committees for direct spending and revenue policies.
In addition to proposing policy changes, Authorization Committee submissions would include an amount per item for each account, even if a committee does not recommend any changes. The Congressional Budget Office already produces a reference for expense accounts, and the Joint Committee on Taxation tax expenditure reports.
Unless Congress proposes and promulgates actual changes to the programs, these line items will not affect policies or take them off autopilot. They would simply provide a context for the tradeoffs and results inherent in an overall budget. They would also put in place a process of changing the floor in all areas to seek more valued uses of the resources.
Unified budgets would make annual mini-markets possible. Tough decisions could advance with popular defense, veterans, health, transportation, and other accounts. The âbig businessâ once in a generation wouldn’t be the biggest, or the only, hope of getting back on track.
Unified budgets could produce beneficial spillovers outside the budget and appropriation process. Discussions in a unified budgetary context could help advance program updates under licensing legislation. The ability to form ad hoc coalitions on the amendments could strengthen relations and reduce polarization within Congress.
More importantly, unified budgets could involve all members, both in their missions in committee and through a robust amendment process on the ground. They would reduce the pressure on leaders to save the day, and they would bring much more order and consistency to the annual process. Unified budgets would help strengthen the power of the Congressional Stock Exchange and restore the primacy of Congress as the primary decision-making body of the federal government.
But first, the autonomous reconciliation must end. It has become a tool of division of a unified, temporary and self-protruding government.
Instead, the annual budget process should cover all budget accounts and involve all members at multiple stages. Congress can only coordinate fiscal policies if it can review them all together.
Unified budgets can reduce polarization, improve results, strengthen Congress, and engage members in productive legislation. Let’s fix the budgeting of Congress to restore Congress.
Kurt Couchman is Senior Fiscal Policy Researcher at Americans for Prosperity.