The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Power of the Purse and Budget Process Reform

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Since the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 (CBA) was first passed, Congress has been able to pass the 12 appropriations bills on time on only three occasions; the most recent was in 1997.  Although the CBA has been amended several times, the budget process remains as broken as it is confusing.  It allows members of Congress to use gimmicks and waivers to avoid budget “requirements” that have necessitated the enactment of continuing resolutions and massive spending packages to keep the government running. 

In the 114th Congress, the House of Representatives was able to pass six of the 12 spending bills, while the Senate approved only two.  A continuing resolution that was passed just before funding expired on December 9, 2016, to fund the government until April 28, 2017, was inevitable, given the election-year gridlock that precluded “regular order.”  But the 115th Congress has a unique opportunity that has not occurred since the 1920s:  fiscal hawks have control of the House, the Senate, and the White House.  This would not only enable Congress to pass a budget and all 12 appropriations on time, it also opens up the possibility exists for Congress to pass much-needed budget process reform.  Fortunately for current and new members, a veteran lawmaker has offered a path.   

On November 30, 2016, House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) released a proposed rewrite of the congressional budget process.  Chairman Price highlighted six principles that are necessary to reform the stagnated process:  enhance constitutional authority, strengthen budget enforcement, reverse the bias towards higher spending, increase transparency, and ensure fiscal authority.  

According to Chairman Price, Congress has ceded much of its power of the purse to the executive branch and its “regime of regulators.”  The proposal suggests that the House and Senate Budget Committees report their budget resolutions by April 15 and that the President should offer his policy-based budget on April 30 (as opposed to the first Monday of February, before Congress begins the budget process).

These are important changes.  The committee notes that Congress, not the executive, has the constitutional power to appropriate funds and should have the first word on how taxpayer dollars are allocated.  The president’s budget should react to the congressional budget, not the other way around.  Further, the proposal states that the fiscal year, currently October 1 through September 30, should match the legislative calendar that runs from January 1 to December 31.

The proposal points out that, according to a January 15, 2016 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, $310 billion was spent on unauthorized programs in fiscal year 2016.  More than half ($160 billion) of these programs have expired authorizations of more than ten years.  This is a gross lack of oversight by Congress; the proposal recommends a reduction in the statutory discretionary spending limits for unauthorized programs that exceed a specific level.  If a program is receiving taxpayer dollars, it needs to be given oversight by Congress to continue receiving funds, rather than automatically receiving millions of dollars every year.

Chairman Price makes several suggestions to increase transparency and ensure stability, but one proposal is particularly essential, after a flurry of “midnight regulations” from the Obama Administration.  The proposed reforms call for the President’s budget to include an analysis of the costs of complying with all current and proposed federal regulations, prohibits any agency from adding new regulatory costs without eliminating existing regulations of the same amount, and requires the CBO and the Office of Management and Budget to create a regulatory baseline in order to estimate total regulatory costs.

Many reforms offered by Chairman Price are commonsense changes to rules:  uniform budget rules and procedures in both chambers of Congress, eliminating built-in discretionary inflation, cost estimates before committee mark-ups, and the elimination of budget gimmicks.

The budget process has failed under both Democratic and Republican control, as well as in divided government, so reforming the budget process should be a bipartisan effort.  Chairman Price’s proposed reforms are a step in the right direction, and members should take them seriously in the 115th Congress.

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