U.S. budget process called a flop

Womack, others on new panel meet to discuss overhaul

WASHINGTON -- The time has come to overhaul the way the federal government spends money, members of the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, said Tuesday.

The panel, mandated by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, held its first public hearing; members from both parties expressed frustration with the status quo, including a number of government shutdowns over the years.

"It is our job to keep the government's lights on. We have failed to do it five times,"said U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, the committee's co-chairman and a Republican from Rogers.

The frustration is on both sides of Capitol Hill.

"The Senate Budget Committee process is completely broken," said U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a member of the budget committee who also serves on the new joint committee.

The 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act governs the budgetary process and sets deadlines for accomplishing the tasks.

Lawmakers are supposed to pass a budget resolution by April 15, setting targets for taxes and revenue, as well as deficits or surpluses.

After that, they're supposed to tackle a dozen appropriations bills, addressing spending in different categories, rather than pass a single massive spending bill. The House is supposed to complete its work by June 30.

The idea is to have everything done well before the start of the new federal fiscal year, Oct. 1.

But lawmakers have struggled with the timelines. In recent years, they have rarely completed the work at all.

Even when the House manages to pass its appropriations bills, the bills stall in the Senate.

Unable to finish by the start of the federal fiscal year, lawmakers have repeatedly passed a series of continuing resolutions -- stop-gap spending bills -- to keep the federal government running.

Sometimes, even that has failed. In January, the government shut down for three days because of funding lapses. In February, it shut down again for a few pre-dawn hours.

Lawmakers eventually agreed on a bill that swelled spending by an additional $320 billion over the next two years. The package also mandated creation of the committee Womack is leading. The committee is supposed to come up with "recommendations and legislative language that will significantly reform the budget and appropriations process," the law states.

The deadline to wrap up the work is Nov. 30.

Womack, the House Budget Committee chairman since January, was appointed to the select committee by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the next month.

"It's probably as important a work as I will do in whatever time I'm in Congress," Womack said in an interview Tuesday.

Womack said he'd like to see a return to "regular order," where the dozen spending bills are drafted, debated and approved in an orderly manner.

Right now, key budget decisions are made belatedly by a handful of people, he said.

"This is a fundamentally flawed process, budgets and appropriations, and it needs to be reformed to be able to work in a 21st century political environment," he said. "If this select committee does not accomplish its job, its mission, then I don't think the future looks all that bright for regular order."

On Tuesday, the committee heard from Martha Coven, a former associate director at the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration, and from former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

Coven suggested moving the start of the fiscal year from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1.

"You would have the full year to get your work done and legislation does tend to get wrapped up in December, as jingle bells start to chime," she said.

Holtz-Eakin described the current system as "a very broken process."

"I regularly tell people the U.S. government does not have a budget. It does not have a fiscal policy," he said. "Instead we have budgetary outcomes, usually bad, and it's time to change that record."

A Section on 04/18/2018