Warning of Looming Shutdown, Lawmakers Look to Boost Agencies’ Budget Certainty

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., has often floated a proposal to move to biennial budgeting. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., has often floated a proposal to move to biennial budgeting. Tim Goessman / AP

As some lawmakers warned the recent budget deal has not yet staved off a government shutdown, others on Wednesday looked to reform the budgeting process in the long term.

Federal agency planners spend a disproportionate amount of their time preparing for various budget contingencies, senators said during a Budget Committee hearing, instead of conducting more mission-critical work. The current system is broken, expert witnesses and members of both parties agreed, leading to less transparency and oversight of federal spending.

The committee held the hearing to review an oft-floated proposal from its chairman, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., to move to biennial budgeting. After approving a two-year measure setting top-line spending, Enzi’s bill would require lawmakers to pass half of the 12 appropriations each year. The more controversial spending bills would be reserved for non-election years.

Congress passed two-year budget deals in 2013 and this year, but the senators noted that came only after threats and deadlines that placed significant strains on agencies.

Two-year budget agreements have become “normalized,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., “but look what it took to get there.” At the Defense Department, Kaine said, agency planners were preparing “seven or eight different budget scenarios” in recent years when they were supposed to be preparing for the next cyber attack.

Requiring two-year budgeting by statute would benefit both agencies and the American taxpayer, Enzi said.

“These deals have been negotiated without the transparency and predictability that regular order provides,” the chairman said. “True reform of the federal budget process would formalize biennial budgeting and move spending decisions from the shadows and into the light, where they belong.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who does not serve on the Budget Committee but testified to it on Wednesday as an advocate of the reform proposal, noted Congress has passed all necessary funding bills on time just once in the last two decades. He said the current process does little to “foster long-term planning” by agency decision makers.

“A longer budget cycle allows for greater long-term strategic planning both in the legislature and federal agencies,” Carper said. “It also ensures greater certainty and predictability for agency officials who are tasked with implementing legislative decisions.”

Most lawmakers said the two-year process would boost oversight, as last-minute deals are largely hidden from public scrutiny and leave little time to review if federal programs are working. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who also testified to the committee, disagreed, saying lawmakers would have fewer opportunities to direct agency spending. Enzi and others noted that 20 states have already successfully implemented biennial budgeting.

Lawmakers repeatedly stressed the need to give agencies more certainty to allow for more holistic planning. This year, however, short-term contingency planning has been required. Agencies were forced to prepare for a possible shutdown before Congress agreed to a continuing resolution -- an often used stopgap measure that comes with problems of its own -- releasing their updated shutdown contingency plans in late September.

While the recent budget deal struck by the White House and congressional leadership mitigated the likelihood of a shutdown in December, when current funding expires, some lawmakers are still worried an appropriations lapse could occur. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., took to the Senate floor Wednesday to warn that any “poison pill riders” attached to an omnibus spending bill could undermine any progress Congress has made. 

“A government shutdown is still a real possibility if some of the ideologues say, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’” Schumer said.

In 2013, the government shut down for 16 days after conservative lawmakers pushed for a defunding of President Obama’s signature health care law. They threatened a similar strategy last year over Obama’s immigration executive order, and again this year to prohibit federal funds from going toward Planned Parenthood.

Obama and congressional Democrats refused to go along with fiscal 2016 appropriations bills previously pushed by Republicans that locked in sequester caps, but those concerns were alleviated by the budget deal that raised the discretionary caps by $80 billion over the next two years. However, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last week the Democrats would unite against any funding measures that include “idealistic” policy riders.

New House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recently told CNN Republicans should be realistic about what they can accomplish “given the constraints of the Constitution,” but said because he is following through on his plan to give more power to rank-and-file members, “I don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”

That perspective led Schumer to tell The Washington Post he is at least somewhat pessimistic a shutdown can be avoided.

“There’s a decent chance the government will shut down over one of these riders, but [Republicans will] lose,” Schumer said. “And we’ve agreed -- Nancy [Pelosi], Harry [Reid], the president -- we’re locking arms on no poison pill riders.”

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