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Floor Statement by Senator Michael B. Enzi on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform

Mr. President, later this week, Congress is expected to send the President another continuing resolution to allow more time to resolve the partisan impasse that has us once again at the brink of a government shutdown.  The current episode is yet another example of the breakdown of what should be the basic nuts and bolts of governing – keeping the government open and funded.

And so I come to floor today to talk about the need to reform our broken budget and appropriations process and to lay out a few ideas I have for how to do so. 

As Chairman of the Budget Committee, I have worked on budget and appropriations process reform for several years and have always believed that changes need to be guided by two core principles.

The first—Reforms should end brinksmanship and the threat of government shutdowns.

The second—Reforms should guide us to create enforceable plans to stop the outrageous growth of our federal debt, which is approaching $22 trillion.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), federal debt held by the public, as a percentage of our economy, is at its highest level since shortly after World War II and that debt is expected to rise sharply over the next 30 years if current laws generally remain unchanged. 

Quite simply, our budget problems are too severe to put off any longer, and yet our dysfunctional budget and appropriations process is preventing Congress from tackling our pressing fiscal challenges.   

To start, one easy thing we could do to improve the process would be to change the names of the Budget and Appropriations Committees to better reflect each committee’s function. 

The Budget Committee, which is tasked with crafting an annual fiscal framework to guide Congress, really should be called the Debt Control Committee. 

The Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for making decisions about how money is spent each year, should be renamed the Budget and Appropriations Committee. 

Too often when we come up against appropriations deadlines – as we are now – press reports declare that Congress has to “pass a budget” to avoid a shutdown, when in reality the budget reflects the start of the process and the appropriations the end.  Changing the committee names would more clearly delineate the actual responsibilities of these committees and thereby make it easier for them to be carried out and understood by the public.  

A second important change would be to finally admit that Congress is not capable of sending 12 appropriations bills to the President before the September 30th end of the fiscal year.   The current process leaves Congress in a nearly perpetual quest to develop and pass 12 funding bills for the next fiscal year to avoid a funding lapse.  And yet, the sheer size and complexity of the federal budget and appropriations process virtually guarantee that Congress will not consider all of the appropriations bills individually each year.  In the last 40 years, we have succeeded only four times in passing all of the appropriations bills on time.

Our inability to pass appropriations bills on the current schedule has made reliance on continuing resolutions a routine part of the process and comes with a cost. 

Earlier this year, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer identified $4 billion in waste owing to lack of financial stability resulting from these continuing resolutions.  He said, “Since 2001, we have put $4 billion in a trashcan, poured lighter fluid on top of it, and burned it. It’s enough money that it can buy us the additional capacity and capability that we need. Instead, that $4 billion of taxpayer money has been lost because of inefficiencies [caused by] continuing resolutions."    

While it’s true that this year we were able to pass five appropriation bills prior to September 30th – remarkably, an improvement from recent years – that still leaves seven bills yet to be enacted.  Five out of twelve, Mr. President.  That is the best we could do in a year where there was a budget agreement well in advance of when a typical budget resolution would be completed.  Included in the seven outstanding bills is support for critical agencies and programs—ranging from federal law enforcement and border security to funding for national parks and food safety.

To address this problem, I have proposed moving to a biennial system and halving the number of appropriations bills considered each year, so that six would be considered in the first session of a Congress and six would be considered in the second.  By providing a more realistic and attainable schedule, we could allow for a more thoughtful process for considering individual bills, free up more time for oversight of federal spending, and reduce the likelihood of continuing resolutions and large, year-end spending bills that are inefficient and too often loaded with waste.  We could also give agencies the certainty they need to plan and make wise decisions regarding how to implement funding.                     

But successful and timely enactment of the appropriations bills is only part of the solution. 

Congress needs to look at authorizations of spending too.  For fiscal year 2018 alone, CBO tells us that Congress appropriated at least $318 billion for programs with expired authorizations.  But this unauthorized funding is not for new programs, it is for programs for things like veterans’ healthcare and foreign affairs to name a few.  Hundreds of accounts continue to receive funding, despite many committees failing to reauthorize them for decades.  We must do better.  We need to take stock of all federal programs, supporting the ones that work and ending those that are duplicative or wasteful.  

We also need to look at the mandatory side of the ledger and programs that don’t have adequate revenue to maintain obligations.  Any new mandatory programs should be self-financing or offset by the elimination of existing programs.  Autopilot programs have grown too large and will soon consume every dollar the federal government brings in.

We need to look at the spending bias that underpins our budget baseline and makes it too easy to spend.  The time has come for a full evaluation of the concepts and procedures that underlie our budgeting process.

To address the long-term, structural deficit problems, we need to create binding fiscal targets that are monitored and enforced annually to make sure lawmakers stay focused on deficit reduction and achieving a sustainable federal budget.  The newly revamped Debt Control Committee should be empowered to establish such targets and enforce spending constraints. 

When we reach consensus on targets—whether it look like the budget resolutions of recent years or my Penny Plan that would balance the budget in five years’ time by cutting just one sent of every dollar spent—we should conform the debt limit to them.   I know that dealing with the debt limit in a responsible manner is a priority for many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and I am ready to work with them on it.   

Each of the above suggestions would improve our process and help us control spending and meet our constitutional obligations.  I plan to pursue them and others in the next Congress and look forward to working with my colleagues to fix our broken budget and appropriations process. 

However, while reforms are needed, the reality is there will never be a perfect process and no reform, by itself, can force the hard decisions that are needed.  What we need is leadership and a commitment from both sides to work together to do what we know needs to be done to confront these challenges.

Mr. President, I look forward to working with my colleagues on these critical issues in the next Congress and yield the floor.