The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Small Step For Budget Reform

Pretty much everyone now acknowledges that the federal budget process is broken. And in the budget bill signed in February, Congress itself acknowledged this and created a special, bicameral committee to consider changes to the budget process.

The committee, known as the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, consists of eight senators and eight members of the House, equally divided between the two parties. It is required to report out some recommendations for budget reform by the end of this month, and members began a public markup of those recommendations earlier this week.

The rules under which the committee is required to work mean that it was never likely to produce dramatic reforms. In order to be included in the bill the committee presents to the larger Congress, a recommendation has to garner at least five Republican and five Democratic votes, and that means very few ideas will make it.

Still, budget reformers have had some hope that, by at least compelling some bipartisan discussion of key problems with the budget process, the committee could be the start of some meaningful improvements to come. It could well be that, but it is certainly looking like a slow start for now. The only recommendation in the bill put forward by the co-chairs of the committee is that Congress move to biennial budgeting in place of the annual budget process required by law today.

Two-year budgeting is not a significant budget reform. For one thing, Congress already does it pretty routinely. The budget resolution passed earlier this year, as well as those in 2013 and 2015, included a two-year appropriations framework. It’s not crazy for Congress to formalize what it already does informally, but neither does it make sense to call that a transformative idea. And there are certainly some real drawbacks to such budgeting, which often just ends up yielding more and bigger supplemental spending packages beyond the normal appropriations bills.

The special committee’s markup process, which began this week and will continue on Tuesday, has so far resulted in three amendments being added to the committee’s reform proposals: One would tinker slightly with the membership structure of the Senate Budget Committee; another clarifies that Congress can still pursue a reconciliation process each year even if it adopts biennial budgeting; and a third creates the option of a special “bipartisan budget resolution” in the Senate. These, too, are very modest ideas.

This modesty is understandable, especially given the structural constraints of this committee. But we should hope that this process shakes loose some greater will for a bigger transformation of the budget and appropriations process. Budgeting is central to what Congress does, and the dysfunction of the budget process is now central to the broader dysfunction of the Congress. In past eras of dysfunction, fundamental budget reform has been essential to reinvigorating Congress and reasserting its authority.

A bolder reform agenda geared to making Congress stronger could try to make the budget process more like legislative work (divided into small, discrete, concrete steps that call for bargaining over particulars) and less like executive work (consolidated into a single, large decision that calls for unity around abstractions). That would mean rethinking elements of the committee system, the work of “scorekeepers” (like the Congressional Budget Office), and even the distinction between authorizing and appropriating that now too often separates policy priorities from budgeting.

Those kinds of ideas aren’t going to come from this special committee. But hopefully its work could help to build the will required to think bigger.

Yuval Levin — Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Most Popular

PC Culture

Hate-Crime Hoaxes Reflect America’s Sickness

On January 29, tabloid news site TMZ broke the shocking story that Jussie Smollett, a gay black entertainer and progressive activist, had been viciously attacked in Chicago. Two racist white men had fractured his rib, poured bleach on him, and tied a noose around his neck. As they were leaving, they shouted ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Strange Paradoxes of Our Age

Modern prophets often say one thing and do another. Worse, they often advocate in the abstract as a way of justifying their doing the opposite in the concrete. The result is that contemporary culture abounds with the inexplicable — mostly because modern progressivism makes all sorts of race, class, and ... Read More
World

Ilhan Omar’s Big Lie

In a viral exchange at a congressional hearing last week, the new congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, who is quickly establishing herself as the most reprehensible member of the House Democratic freshman class despite stiff competition, launched into Elliott Abrams. She accused the former Reagan official ... Read More
PC Culture

Fake Newspeople

This week, the story of the Jussie Smollett hoax gripped the national media. The story, for those who missed it, went something like this: The Empire actor, who is both black and gay, stated that on a freezing January night in Chicago, in the middle of the polar vortex, he went to a local Subway store to buy a ... Read More
U.S.

White Progressives Are Polarizing America

To understand how far left (and how quickly) the Democratic party has moved, let’s cycle back a very short 20 years. If 1998 Bill Clinton ran in the Democratic primary today, he’d be instantaneously labeled a far-right bigot. His support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, ... Read More
Elections

One Last Grift for Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, the antique Brooklyn socialist who represents Vermont in the Senate, is not quite ready to retire to his lakeside dacha and so once again is running for the presidential nomination of a party to which he does not belong with an agenda about which he cannot be quite entirely ... Read More
PC Culture

Merciless Sympathy

Jussie Smollett’s phony hate-crime story could have been taken apart in 24 hours, except for one thing: Nobody wanted to be the first to call bullsh**. Who will bell the cat? Not the police, and I don’t blame them. Smollett is a vocal critic of President Donald Trump who checks two protected-category ... Read More