A small but simple step toward fiscal restraint: Stick to the normal budget process

Adam Berkland Federal Affairs Manager, AFP
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Many conservatives are outraged that the U.S. Senate hasn’t passed a budget resolution since early 2009. Yet in a way, even this eye-popping fact understates how badly federal budgeting efforts have broken down in recent years.

Passing a budget resolution in the spring is only the first step in a year-long process Congress is supposed to use to set discretionary spending levels. Once this budget blueprint is in place, each chamber must debate and pass 12 separate appropriations bills that actually dole out the line-by-line funding for federal agencies. The process was designed to be slow and deliberate, to allow the American people to see exactly how members of Congress were spending their tax dollars.

In practice, however, the process is quite messy. Partisan differences and both inter-chamber and inter-branch fights often get in the way. So here’s another surprising statistic: The last time both chambers completed the whole federal budget process on time was almost 20 years ago!

Last year’s budget cycle exemplifies this budgeting ineptitude. The Senate completely checked out as soon as Washington’s cherry blossoms popped, but the House showed some glimmer of hope. In April, it passed a smart budget blueprint that would have put Washington’s fiscal house in order over the long term.

In late May, the appropriations bills started making their way through committee and 6 of the 12 bills even passed after they were brought to the House floor. House Republicans, with their new majority won in the November 2010 elections, were well on their way to keeping their “Pledge to America” promise to “advance major legislation one issue at a time.”

Then came the divisive debt ceiling debates in late July, and the budget process was first derailed, then abandoned altogether. Just as it had in years past, Congress once again resorted to “continuing resolutions” to avoid government shutdowns — governing by stop-gap measure. Instead of carefully debating and voting on each appropriations bill, leaders in both chambers rolled them all together into two giant “omnibus” packages and quickly passed them before the American people could see (much less comment on) what was in them.

This breakdown was devastating for those of us demanding smaller government and fiscal responsibility. Instead of a $31 billion cut to discretionary spending as called for in their own budget blueprint in April, by late December the House enacted legislation that actually increased discretionary spending by $4 billion.

No one should be surprised at this result. When the transparent and deliberate budget process is completely ignored, when it is replaced with enormous “must-pass” bills drafted in closed-door sessions and hastily passed by a Congress itching to get out of town for the holidays, there’s little room to fit in consideration for the will of the American people. Congress’ failure to adhere to the legally prescribed budgeting procedures is one of the many reasons why spending has skyrocketed in Washington in recent years.

Despite the tendency for politicians to sit on their hands in election years, there’s no reason why this year’s budget cycle can’t be different. It appears that the Harry Reid-led Senate has once again passed on the opportunity to actually vote on a budget resolution (which stalls the whole process), but the House has a good start on the process.

Led by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the House passed a fiscally responsible budget in March. Under the leadership of Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), two appropriations bills have already made it through committee proceedings and will likely be considered on the House floor as soon as next week.

It’s imperative that they carry this process all the way through to the end. If House leaders want to show the American people a clear alternative to our tax-and-spend president and the do-nothing Harry Reid Senate, they have to start with responsible budgeting.

Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA), a member of the Budget Committee, is circulating a letter calling on leadership to ensure each of the 12 appropriations bills make it to the House floor on time — no more rolling everything together in massive “omnibus” packages at the end of the year. It should be a no-brainer for every member of Congress who supports fiscal restraint to sign on.

Adam Berkland is the federal affairs manager for Americans for Prosperity.