What the budget process can tell us about the state of the Senate
(Editor's Note: This piece was first published by R Street on August 9, 2017.)
Congress is running out of time to fund the federal government for the upcoming fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
In July, the House of Representatives passed four appropriations bills bundled together in a so-called minibus. But senators chose to leave town for their August recess rather than take up that spending package.
And there won’t be much time to do so when they return in September. The Senate is currently scheduled to be in session for only 17 days next month. The House and Senate will be on the job at the same time for only 12 of those days.
That doesn’t leave a lot of time for the Senate to take up and debate the House-passed minibus, much less the other eight appropriation bills that have yet to be considered by the full House or Senate. A short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open while Congress finishes its work appears inevitable.
Often overlooked in reporting on this state-of-play is the fact that Congress has yet to pass a budget resolution for the fiscal year that begins the end of next month. This is significant, because the budget provides the framework in which the appropriations process unfolds. That is, it governs annual spending decisions in the House and Senate. As such, its consideration is meant to precede that of the appropriations bills.
But that rarely happens these days.
Instead, Congress routinely fails to pass a budget at all. For example, Congress passed only two budgets in the seven years since 2010. And only one of those (in 2016) can be thought of as a budget in any meaningful sense. Congress passed the other one (in 2017) simply to make it possible for Republicans in the House and Senate to repeal and replace Obamacare via reconciliation. Members were focused on the budget’s reconciliation instructions and not its top-line spending, revenue and debt numbers.
A recent paper from Brookings Institution Fellow Molly Reynolds and the Center for Effective Public Management tackles this phenomenon and, in the process, provides valuable insight into why the Senate has been reluctant to take up a budget in recent years.
According to Reynolds, two developments are to blame. First, the budget process has become a partisan exercise. This aligns with how we typically think about the resolution itself. That is, as a symbolic document reflecting the priorities and governing agenda of the majority party. It is also hard to imagine a policy area that generates a comparable degree of conflict on such a consistent basis, given the controversial nature of our budgetary politics today.
As a result, budget votes have become party-line affairs, where senators from one side of the aisle reflexively line up in opposition to those on the other. In this environment, members of the minority party rarely cross over to support the majority’s budget.
One consequence of this is that it is now harder for Senate majorities to pass a budget when they are divided. Achieving party unity is made even more difficult with the strict statutory limits placed on defense and nondefense discretionary spending by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Given that Senate minorities cannot obstruct budget resolutions, this dynamic also provides insight into how we should expect the institution to operate if a majority uses the nuclear option to eliminate the legislative filibuster in the future. If recent experience with the budget is any guide, empowering a majority to pass measures in the Senate unencumbered by the minority will not necessarily guarantee a sudden burst of legislative productivity.
Reynolds also suggests that the Senate’s reluctance to consider the budget resolution may be driven by the broader breakdown in the institution’s decision-making process more generally. That is, members increasingly offer more floor amendments during the consideration of the budget because it represents one of the few instances when they know they will have the opportunity to do so.
Overall amendment activity in the Senate has declined. While the number of amendments that are filed to legislation considered on the floor has remained relatively consistent, the number of those amendments that are eventually offered (i.e., made pending) to bills has dropped considerably. The reason is that leaders from both parties have utilized a complex assortment of rules and practices to exert greater control over the Senate floor than at any point in the institution’s history. The principal means by which they establish such control is their ability to fill the amendment tree, or offer the maximum allowable number of amendments to legislation. No amendments are in order once all the extant branches on the tree are occupied. As a result, senators are blocked from offering their own amendments.
But it is harder for leaders to block amendments during the budget’s consideration because members can continue offering amendments during the so-called vote-a-rama period once all debate time on the resolution has expired. The budget thus offers members a relatively easy way to engage in credit-claiming and position-taking activities on the Senate floor.
In highlighting these problems, Reynolds underscores the various ways in which the contemporary budget process is in tension with itself. Acknowledging the trade-offs inherent in such contradictions is an important first step in designing reforms that can help reverse Congress’ current trend of not considering a budget.
Several of these reforms are reviewed in the paper, including setting an overall limit on the number of amendments a senator may offer during floor consideration and creating a cloture-like filing deadline for those amendments to give members more time to review them before having to cast their votes.
Another possibility is to revise the contents of a budget resolution to include more information to help rank-and-file members and their staff independently assess the budget. Currently, budget enforcement mechanisms are tied to committee allocations, but few members (and few staff outside of the leadership and budget committees) fully understand how those allocations relate to the functional categories in the budget resolution text. They are not publicly available until they are published in the conference report’s statement of managers at the end of the process. Requiring the budget’s major functional categories to be replaced in the text, or at least supplemented, with specific committee allocations for budget authority, outlays, contract authority (where appropriate), and revenues (where appropriate) would enhance senators’ ability to evaluate the impact of any amendments offered, as well as the underlying resolution itself, on their priorities for the upcoming year.
Reforms like these would certainly make it easier for members to weigh the merits of various amendments and the budget resolution itself. But Reynolds concludes with the astute observation that such changes may be insufficient, so long as senators are not able to offer amendments freely to other measures on the Senate floor. That is, the budget resolution and vote-a-rama are likely remain an outlet for pent-up member demand to participate in the legislative process without changes to how the Senate makes decisions more generally.