Options to Address U.S. Federal Government Budget Process Dysfunction

Thomas is a Sailor in the United States Navy.  He can be found on Twitter @CTNope.  The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the United States Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  The current arrangements of tasks related to funding the U.S. Government enables government shutdowns to occur.  These shutdowns cause massive disruptions on many levels.

Date Originally Written:  January 30th, 2019.

Date Originally Published: 
 April 8, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a U.S. Navy sailor and undergraduate student, interested in the U.S. Government, foreign policy, and national security matters.

Background:  The United States Government is funded every year through an appropriations bill or through a continuing resolution of a previous bill. This bill, like all others, begins in the House of Representatives, is sent to the Senate, and signed by the President. Since 1976, when the current budget and appropriations process was adopted, there have been over 20 gaps in budget funding, commonly referred to as shutdowns. These shutdowns have lasted as little as 1 day to the recent 34 day shutdown of the Trump Administration. During a shutdown, federal agencies are unable to complete their missions, as their levels of funding degrade or run out entirely[1].

Significance: When the Federal Government runs out of funding, consequences arise at
all levels of society. Constituents, businesses, and institutions find it difficult to or are unable to execute tasks, such as filing tax returns, receiving permits for operations, or litigating judicial cases. Lapses in funding often lead to unforeseen, third-order of effect consequences[2]. It is challenging enough to strategically plan for the myriad of problems the United States faces, it is even more difficult to plan on a previous budget’s continuing resolution. But when the government runs out of funding, and agencies close, planning becomes all but impossible. While government shutdowns often end quickly, lapses in funding raise criticism on the stability of the United States and the ability of
elected officials to govern.

Option #1:  The budget process is changed from an annual to a biennial budget process. Congress would adopt a budget and all appropriation bills during the first year of a session, authorizing two years of funding, ensuing the budgets are only passed in non-election years. In addition, a review of tax expenditures would be mandated by a new law. This review would be conducted by creating a baseline projection of tax expenditures, drafted by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and an automatic review of all tax expenditures when baseline projections are exceeded.

Risk:  The changes outlined in Option 1 might not be effective in combating the symptoms of the dysfunction inside of the budget process. While extending the timeline of the budget cycle could mitigate the potential for a shutdown, it is still possible for shutdowns to occur, as the Congress and President must still come to a compromise. The creation of a tax review could give policymakers a non-partisan foundation to make policy changes, yet policymakers already have similar resources, stemming from think tanks, academia, or the CBO[3].

Gain:  While not perfect, enacting Option 1 would be challenging but not impossible in the current political climate. According to Gallup[4], changes to the budget cycle are widely supported and bipartisan. Option 1 allows Congress to better fulfill their appropriation responsibilities. In addition, in not having to work on an annual budget, Congress will have more time for oversight and reauthorizations of programs, better utilizing limited resources. Furthermore, the review of tax expenditures will allow Congress to ensure that it is meeting its mission of sustainable funding the Government.

Option #2:  Take budget approval power away from the President. This option entails creating a joint standing committee, specifically called the Semi-Annual Budget Committee, with 8 members of the Senate and 16 members of the House. The Speaker and the Minority Leader of the House Representatives would each appoint 8 members. The Majority and Minority Leader of the Senate would each appoint 4 members. The President would no longer sign the budget into law, rather, the responsibility would rest completely with the Congress. The President would submit budget requests, but those would be requests only – as the executive would cease to sign the budget. Lastly, this option has precedent. From the adoption of the Constitution until 1921, with the signing of the Budget and Accounting Act during the Harding Administration, the legislature had the majority of the “power of the purse”, the power to raise taxes and appropriate resources[5].

Risk:  While the Government would no longer shut down due to conflicts between the executive and legislature, this radical restructuring of responsibilities could have significant consequences. Specifically, partisanship, so common inside the beltway, could threaten the productivity of the Committee. If another hypothetical ‘Tea Party’ or equally populist leftist movement were to materialize, it is not difficult to foresee the Semi-Annual Budget Committee bogging down in a partisan slugging match.

Gain:  This option would ensure a degree of budget stability for the future by preventing the President from vetoing budget bills.

Other Comments:  Regardless of the chosen course of action, the current political landscape holds unique opportunities. According to Gallup data, a significant percentage of Americans support reforms to the current budget process[6]. With this board public approval, lawmakers could institute various reforms that previously were politically impractical. Furthermore, reform doesn’t have to be radical. It can take the form of incremental change over multiple Congressional sessions.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Cooper, Ryan. “Make Government Shutdowns Impossible Again.” The Week, January 23, 2019. Retrieved From: https://theweek.com/articles/819015/make-government-shutdowns-impossible-again.

[2] Walshe, Shushannah (October 17, 2013). “The Costs of the Government Shutdown”. ABC News. Archived from the original on September 12, 2017. Retrieved September 18, 2015. 

[3] United States Government Congressional Budget Office. “Processes.” Congressional Budget Office. (n.d.). Retrieved From:  https://www.cbo.gov/about/processes#baseline

[4] Gallup Pollsters. “Federal Budget Deficit.” Gallup. March 2018. Retrieved From: https://news.gallup.com/poll/147626/federal-budget-deficit.aspx.

[5] Constitution of the United States, Article I, 

[6] Gallup Pollsters. “Federal Budget Deficit.” Gallup. March 2018. Retrieved From: https://news.gallup.com/poll/147626/federal-budget-deficit.aspx.

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