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Reinventing Washington's Broken Budget Process

WASHINGTON—This op ed by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) first appeared in RealClearPolicy on September 27, 2017.

4:43. Those are the odds the federal government will complete its budget process on time. Since the 1974 Budget Act became law, it has worked the way it was intended just four times in 43 consecutive tries. 

The American people are fed up with Washington — and rightfully so. Both parties are responsible for this pathetic budgeting record and for its byproduct: a staggering $20 trillion debt. It's time to forge a new path.

Currently, Congress’ budget process consists of a resolution and 12 separate appropriations bills. However, the budget itself doesn’t have the enforcement power of a law, so it often devolves into a political manifesto rather than a governing document. As a result, Congress has passed an average of 2.5 appropriations bills annually since 1974.

As we’ve seen year after year, the process breaks down. Inevitably, continuing resolutions are needed to keep the government open while all federal spending is lumped into a massive omnibus bill that must be passed at the eleventh hour. This expedited timeframe leaves little room for proper oversight and has even resulted in the funding of programs with expired authorizations. It sounds unbelievable, but this happens often. In fact, continuing resolutions to fund the government and keep its doors open have happened some 179 times over the last 43 years.

The cumulative effect is uncertainty for both our national security and economy. Military leaders have repeatedly stated financial uncertainty ties their hands when it comes funding missions. Economically, financial uncertainty does not allow for business and families to adequately plan ahead. Furthermore, this broken process insulates the largest drivers of the federal budget from review because roughly 70 percent of all spending is mandatory.  

This mandatory spending includes interest on the debt, Medicare, and Social Security. Some of our most vulnerable depend on these programs, as do working Americans who paid into the system for years. Washington has neglected to ensure their long-term survival by letting them operate on autopilot. Today, both Social Security and Medicare are on a road to ruin. Recently, the annual Social Security and Medicare Trustees Report predicted Social Security would be insolvent in 17 years and Medicare in 12. Until the process changes, there is no way for Congress to put in motion a feasible plan to save these programs. 

It’s clear that whatever your political party or personal priorities might be, the current budget process has failed you in a major way. 

Both parties and both houses of Congress know that, until we fix the budget process, dysfunction and gridlock will continue to rule in Washington, regardless of who is in charge. That means the budget will be delayed, funding decisions will be rolled into massive packages, and the consequences for failure will be passed onto the military and the American people. There are no winners in this scenario. 

Tinkering around the edges of the current process won’t work as a long-term solution. We both agree that the only way to truly break this cycle of dysfunction is to completely reinvent it. Accountability must be brought to the system with a clean-page, politically neutral platform. 

The new budget format must include several guiding principles: The budget resolution should be a law; every dollar being spent should be included in the budget; and there must be real consequences for failure to fund the government on time.  

While there is a discussion to have about the specifics of a new budget process, these principles are a crucial starting point. It’s also important to recognize that there is bipartisan agreement that the status quo is not working. Given Washington’s dynamics, this could be one of the only chances Congress has to deliver lasting bipartisan results. Instead of ignoring this opportunity, let’s seize it.

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