Congress' Budget Process Is Broken. Here's One Idea for Fixing It.

Lawmakers should be freed from "the dead hand of some guy from 1974," says former Congressional Budget Office director.


If you made a list of all the reasons why federal borrowing has spiraled out of control in recent years, the utter failure of Congress to pass a true budget would certainly rank near, or at, the very top.

Regular Reason readers know this fact well: Since 1996, Congress has never—yes, not even once—passed a budget on time and in full. It's probably not a coincidence that the late '90s were also the last time the federal budget was anywhere close to balancing.

In place of a complete budget, Congress has for decades relied upon continuing resolutions and omnibus bills. Usually, those become "must-pass" pieces of legislation that force lawmakers into up-or-down votes on the eve of some major deadline—like Christmas or a potential government shutdown—leaving no room for the necessary debating, prioritizing, and deciding that is fundamental to managing spending levels. It's a bad process and it predictably produces bad outcomes.

In theory, Congress could fix this anytime it wanted by reverting to so-called regular order and following the budget process codified by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. That's a good idea! It's something that congressional factions including the hard-right House Freedom Caucus and centrist Problem Solvers Caucus have both suggested.

In practice, however, it seems obvious that Congress lacks the incentives to do so. Maybe that's because leadership refuses to relinquish control over spending decisions to committees. Maybe it's because individual members of Congress care more about going viral than governing. Regardless, here we are in the 28th straight year without a budget and the national debt is approaching $35 trillion.

If Congress won't abide by the old budget rules, maybe what it needs are some new ones. That has to be better than the way things work now, argued Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, an entity that was also created by the 1974 budget act.

"I think Congress should pass a budget process reform bill, and I don't care what's in it," Holtz-Eakin, now the president of the American Action Forum, said during a recent conversation with Santi Ruiz in his Statecraft newsletter.

The process of writing and passing a new set of rules for the budget process would give current lawmakers a stronger obligation to actually follow those rules, Holtz-Eakin says.

"So it's not the dead hand of some guy from 1974 telling me to do something," he said. "But if they agreed, then at least for a couple of years, they're going to feel obligated to do that, and we'd have a process that functions."

Rewriting fundamental rules for how Congress operates does carry some risk, of course. It means you'd be trusting the current clown car of federal lawmakers to make prudent decisions with an eye toward future generations—something they are clearly not too good at doing, or else we wouldn't have a nearly $35 trillion national debt.

But Holtz-Eakin's point is that even a less-good budget process would be better than a budget process that everyone ignores. That's probably correct. A new budget act could also be an opportunity to build in some structural restraints to Congress' willingness to borrow and borrow and borrow some more. There could be a specific debt-to-GDP target, for example, that would provide a guardrail against reckless deficit spending.

Any change to congressional process is only as good as Congress' willingness to abide by the new rules.

Even so, this is an idea worth exploring—one that might restore some legitimacy to the institution responsible for controlling the federal purse strings and some sanity to the federal budget.