The Busted, Beleaguered, Broken Budget Process

Senator Mike Enzi wants to quash the madness and fix the system. But if he succeeds, what will lawmakers use as a scapegoat for their infighting?

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi's staff director, Eric Euland, mans a display with copies of President Obama’s fiscal 2017 federal budget. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

If it’s April, it must be budget season in Congress—or, more specifically, time for Congress to blow its annual budget deadline. April 15 is the official target. But no one takes that seriously. Often, lawmakers spend an extra month or so hammering out a budget resolution. More often these days, they opt not to pass one at all.

To be fair, forging a budget agreement requires tough debates, painful compromises, and politically fraught votes (three things that lawmakers avoid more than ever). And, in the end, what do you get? A vague, nonbinding blueprint that does little more than alert members as to which spending areas they’ll want to cause a stink about when it comes time to haggle over the appropriations bills that actually fund the government. Look at last year: Remember the self-congratulatory hullabaloo that flowed from Congress when it passed a budget (just three weeks late!) for the first time in five years? It was the dawn of a new era! A return to responsible government! The end of dysfunction! Then appropriations season rolled around, and all hell broke loose. Next thing you know, the House Freedom Caucus had driven out the speaker, the president had issued a rare veto of defense funding, and unsettling phrases like “debt default” and “government shutdown” filled the air. It was only through doomed Speaker John Boehner’s act of seppuku that enough space was cleared for his successor, Paul Ryan, to jam through an omnibus spending package just before Christmas. Despite Republican leadership’s efforts and reassurances, this year’s budget follies are on track to be similarly dispiriting, if not quite so bloody.

No one is more sensitive to how FUBAR this process is than lawmakers themselves. Members know their inability to properly fund the government makes them look bad, and they are forever kvetching about the annual pageant of dysfunction. One of Ryan’s big pledges to his restive troops, in fact, was to restore “regular order” to appropriations, meaning that the 12 funding bills would wend their way through the relevant committees rather than being smushed together in one last-minute, catch-all behemoth. But don’t count on this year’s process going smoothly—or going period. (When I asked a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid if he thought appropriations would get very far, he first laughed at me, then accused me of being on drugs.) Expect maybe two or three funding bills to move before things start to fall apart. In fact, at this point, some Republican members say they’d consider clearing three bills (again, out of a dozen) a success. That is how low expectations have sunk.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, for one, is fed up. Looking to spotlight the insanity, he is holding a series of hearings this month exploring “How to fix the broken budget process.” With House Republicans spending yet another spring beating each other up over a budget plan, Enzi is digging deep, looking at ways to overhaul the system from soup to nuts. The first hearing, held April 6, looked at “how the federal government’s financial mismanagement contributes to the broken budget process.” For this, the head of the General Accounting Office came in to lament how his people can’t even do a proper audit of the government’s financials because the data is so shabby.

This Wednesday’s session featured a collection of academic types talking about shifting the way government is organized and funded to an outcomes-based “portfolio” system that would make decision-making less fragmented and more goal-oriented. Next week’s hearing will focus on ending “crisis budgeting,” and the final one, at the end of the month, on transforming the president’s annual budget proposal and Congress’s budget resolutions from meaningless, toothless guidelines into real “governing documents.” Then there’s Enzi’s pet issue, biennial budgeting, which enjoyed its own set of hearings in the fall. (Multiple bills on this issue are already drifting around Capitol Hill.)

Sounds like a good plan, right? Bring in experts to spotlight the existing mess and propose outside-the-box solutions. Already the hearings “are turning out to be a great sounding board to figure out what committee members want to do,” says one Republican staffer on the Budget Committee. Even committee Democrats commend Enzi’s reform zeal and his thus-far “agnostic” approach to budget outcomes. (Translation: He’s not simply looking to slash entitlements or to make it harder to raise taxes.) “He seems genuinely interested in some of these ideas,” says one minority staffer.

That said, some of the ideas being floated—like portfolio budgeting—would require major reorganizations of Congress and federal agencies alike. And that, both sides agree, isn’t going to happen. Enzi’s people assure me they’re looking to start with baby steps toward reform, “small changes here and there”—like, say, setting up a budget-oversight system that would bring together “various leaders and stakeholders.” What that would look like, how it would happen, and who would be in charge have yet to be determined. “But we’re not giving up!” the majority staffer assures me. In fact, he says, Enzi hopes to have some type of reform bill in markup before Memorial Day. (Again, all details TBD.)

While open to reform, Democrats are less than optimistic that any of these reforms are going anywhere. “These hearings are sort of like BS sessions,” says the minority staffer. “Enzi calls a hearing on some idea he wants to explore, and the few senators show up who want to talk about it.” The hearings, posits the Democrat, are more of a diversion of sorts: “Nobody’s happy with the process. But it has also become a scapegoat.” Republicans have failed to pass a budget resolution this year, and rather than “blaming themselves or blaming their colleagues on the other side of the Capitol, they’re blaming the process,” he says.

In a presidential election year, with control of the Senate on the line and lawmakers’ approval ratings lower than a snake’s belly, Republicans are understandably anxious to show that they understand voters’ desire for change. And far better to focus on flaws in the budget process than on the paralyzing battles among Republican factions over the content of the actual bills. If they’re going to fail to accomplish these basic congressional functions, suggests the Democratic Budget staffer, the least they can do is “try to look busy.”