A federal worker stacks copies of President Trump's 2018 budget proposal onto a pallet for distribution last year.

A federal worker stacks copies of President Trump's 2018 budget proposal onto a pallet for distribution last year. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Budget Reformers Seek Fresh Program Reviews, Among Other Things

An ideologically diverse group of fiscal experts offers a five-part plan to induce bipartisan cooperation.

In a nudge to Congress to fix its broken budget process, an ideologically diverse group of fiscal experts on Monday released a five-part plan they hope forms a “beachhead” to increase bipartisan cooperation.

The report, “Building a Better Budget Process,” is the fruit of 18 months of brainstorming sessions convened by the nonprofit Convergence Center for Policy Resolution.

It recommends two-year budgets aligned with congressional sessions, a four-year Fiscal State of the Union report, a fresh performance review of agency programs, enhanced authority for Congress’s budget panels, and greater resources for agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Taxation Committee.

“Though the economy is strong, Congress is avoiding tough choices,” said Maya McGuiness, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, at a “summit” luncheon from which the report was launched. Warning that deficits could reach as high as $2 trillion, she said Congress’s “broken budget” is too light on transparency and accountability, and too heavy on “end runs and workarounds.”

The nonprofit committee also on Monday released a report exposing 20 common budgeting gimmicks deployed in the past as well as in the Trump administration’s recent fiscal 2019 budget request.

The five-part action plan from Convergence “will help prevent future government shutdowns, reduce budget uncertainty and restore faith in our government,” the group said. It comes as Congress is setting up, as called for in this month’s Bipartisan Budget Act, a Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform that is set to report in December.

Evidence that the current process is broken, the group noted, includes the fact that “Congress last completed the budget process on time—with all appropriations bills passed prior to the beginning of the fiscal year—in 1997,” it said in a statement. “Since 1976, our government has shut down 20 times: most recently twice last month, and for more than two weeks in 2013.”

The five recommendations were prepared by a diverse collection of budget experts from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the liberal Center for American Progress, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the conservative Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Specifically, the proposed budget action plan would differ from current law in that it would be negotiated with the president and Congress at the start of a Congress. It would commit to key fiscal decisions such as funding levels and adjusting the debt limit.

In conceiving the Fiscal State of the Nation Report, the group considered tapping former CBO directors, Treasury secretaries, respected past senators or members of Congress as authors. But “the group realized that creating an independent body posed additional costs, and complexities, not to mention adding yet another source of fiscal information to the mix,” the report said. Using OMB or Treasury risked a “partisan cast,” the report continued. So CBO would take on the quadrennial task.

The program reviews would “involve long-term or intergenerational commitments (e.g., retirement security, health coverage, education or national security),” the report said, and would rely on the Government Accountability Office for enforcement of a long-term perspective. Specialists would analyze the “recent performance of a portfolio, and projected performance over the upcoming 10 to 25 years, against their goals and commitments, and recommendations for how that performance could be improved,” the group recommended.

This election year “may not be a year to get things done,” MacGuiness said. “But it might sneak up on you.” The new five-part proposal to fix the process “won’t replace policymakers, but it can be a nudge.”