Congress’ frustrating budget stalemates and addiction to end-of-session continuing resolutions could be eliminated under a new set of reform proposals detailed on Monday by Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Budget Committee.
An accountant who points proudly to firm spending decisions made by the legislature in Wyoming, Enzi has been holding hearings and rolling out budget reform proposals for much of this year.
To his earlier calls for biennial budgeting and a new fiscal commission to tackle debt (now at $19 trillion, or 104 percent of gross domestic product), Enzi has added a proposal to create a budget for agency-issued regulations, such as is done in Canada, he said at a Capitol Hill panel organized by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “The agencies get credit for eliminating regulations before they issue another,” he said in summarizing his 10 reform proposals.
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“After a decade of broken budgets, out-of-control spending and a surging national debt, it is time to confront one of the main sources of our country’s fiscal dysfunction: America’s broken budget process,” Enzi said. “Congress is like a binge eater who wants to go on a diet after dessert….after just one more election.”
Noting that 70 percent of government spending is on automatic pilot, Enzi’s offerings include changes to congressional rules for debate and voting, changes in budget concepts currently used by the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget, and tougher enforcement of long-term spending plans.
“One problem is the budget format,” Enzi said. “The president has one, the Budget Committee has one, and the Appropriations committee has a different one. I’m convinced that is intentional so people can’t follow the money. Audits won’t work because the Defense Department allocates in a way different from what the Treasury Department does.”
Every year, money goes to emergencies such as forest fires and earthquakes, and, recently to Flint, Mich., to address its water supply crisis, Enzi said. But “there’s no ending date for emergency spending,” so the government needs a regular appropriation to anticipate the disasters.
“We also never look at old programs,” the chairman said, citing 260 programs that are expiring but still made it in the budget for a cost of $293.5 billion and rising. Budgeting would also become easier if similar programs were grouped into “portfolios,” he said, citing work he did with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to reduce 119 preschool programs at multiple agencies down to 65, with most at the Education Department.
Enzi’s broader reforms include “putting everything on the budget,” including such items as the Highway Trust Fund, and creating enforceable long-term fiscal targets. He would segregate a budget for capital construction as investment in the future, and he would create a new budget commission like the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin bodies from 2011-12, but one that focuses on modernizing accounting rules.
Switching to two-year budgeting, Enzi said, would allow lawmakers more time to study the budget and solve the problem of there being “no relationship between the authorization and appropriations.”
Because of lawmaker reluctance to take tough votes near an election, he would force six of the toughest appropriations bills to be addressed right after the election, and the six easier ones just before the next election.
Other legislative branch reforms would include “mandatory floor time for appropriations bills” to get around filibusters by waiving points of order for large bills. Enzi would also eliminate the famous end-of-session Vote-a-Rama, which is a “marathon of votes on meaningful political amendments” that Senators take for the folks back home.
Enzi’s reform efforts are being tackled by his House counterpart, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., though momentum is not readily apparent. “We’ve made some progress,” Enzi said, “but we don’t know who the next president is. The majority want changes, but we will have to have both sides committed.”