The Problem of Credible Commitment in Congressional Budgeting

Journal of Policy History: Vol. 27, no. 2 (2015): 382-403


This article examines the effectiveness of multi-year budget process reforms in the U.S. Congress. Examining the recent history of these budget agreements enables us to determine whether or not it is realistic to count on their projected savings in the future simply because the law technically mandates them. Analyzing the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 and the Budget Control Act of 2011, this article suggests that Congress is unable to credibly commit to fiscal restraint in the future. Specifically, the conscious inclusion of procedural mechanisms creating the capacity for future congresses to evade their budgetary controls is an obstacle to the efficient operation of those controls in the first place. This strongly suggests that the frequent use of such agreements in congressional decision-making in recent years reflects unwillingness by current members to tie the hands of future congresses to the extent possible in order to achieve multi-year deficit reduction targets.