The 16 lawmakers tasked with overhauling the budget and appropriations process will begin meeting informally this month to determine if they can agree on bipartisan changes before the end of November, according to House Budget Chairman Steve Womack.
The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform has an uphill climb before it can produce the type of legislation that a majority of its Democrats and a majority of its Republicans will support — let alone the type of bill that a majority of each chamber will vote to enact.
During the panel’s five public hearings, there has been a clear disconnect between whether the process actually needs an overhaul, or whether partisan politics are the real issue causing continuing resolutions and the much despised omnibus appropriations packages.
The panel’s co-chairwoman, Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, has repeatedly pointed out that with the current process, the Senate Appropriations Committee has advanced all 12 of its fiscal 2019 spending bills to the floor with broad bipartisan support and avoided fights on issues that could hamstring or torpedo the process. The House Appropriations Committee, in contrast, has advanced most of its bills along party-line votes.
“What’s very interesting about this appropriations season is the Senate is operating in a bipartisan way,” she said. “We’re operating very differently and that could be an interesting discussion in itself as to process.”
Lowey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said last week that she believes “polarization and partisanship” are the “fundamental cause of many of our difficulties.”
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Lowey and Womack will have to work closely during the coming months, if there’s any hope of getting substantial changes reported out of the committee before its Nov. 30 deadline. That could lead to some interesting and frank conversations between the two, considering that Womack feels strongly that process changes need to take place.
For the moment, Womack appears optimistic the panel will be able to come up with bipartisan suggestions.
“I’m happy to report that bipartisan, bicameral consensus is steadily growing with our group of 16,” the Arkansas Republican said Thursday.
Womack said that several members of the committee have already submitted recommendations to him and Lowey and that others should do the same.
Womack’s comments came at the end of a hearing where former House Budget Chairman Leon E. Panetta of California and former House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey of Wisconsin, both Democrats, didn’t pull any punches regarding the panel’s chances of success.
“The problem the country’s facing is not process, it’s political. And everything else is just avoidance,” Obey said.
A key problem that has harmed the appropriations process, he added, is that there are too many districts where House members win the general election by 60 percent or 70 percent, instead of having a more centrist constituency that forces them to place legislative accomplishments above constantly siding with one party.
“They don’t have any pressure to compromise; in fact the pressure is just the opposite,” Obey said of House members from gerrymandered districts. The way many states draw those House district lines is part of the reason the Senate is much better at compromising and passing spending bills than the House, he said.
Obey told the committee that in the coming months, they are going to have to decide on whether they want to put forward a major overhaul of the system or a “patch job.”
He suggested they abolish the Budget committees and “recognize that in the last 50 years the budget has never approached balance with revenues.” He added that the budget deficit wasn’t the only problem, arguing “an infrastructure deficit, a skilled worker deficit” were also major challenges Congress should be tackling.
Tips from the past
Panetta, who spent 16 years as a House member, told the 16-member panel that in order to achieve a better process, they need to focus on working across the aisle rather than scoring political points.
“You guys are engaged in trench warfare up here,” said Panetta, who also served as Office of Management and Budget director and White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton and Defense secretary and CIA director under Barack Obama. “You’re in the trenches and you’re fighting this war and you’re throwing grenades at one another. And every once in a while, you come out of there. And you’re worried about someone shooting you in the back if you try to negotiate something.”
Panetta, however, did propose an array of potential changes to the budget and appropriations process, including looking at biennial budgeting, making the budget resolution an enforceable joint resolution signed into law by the president, moving from a fiscal year to a calendar year cycle, and setting some unspecified “price to be paid for failure to pass a budget resolution.”
Panetta also encouraged the panel to look at bringing back the “Gephardt Rule” for the debt limit, named for former House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, which enabled the House to avoid voting to raise the ceiling if they had already adopted a final budget resolution. In addition, he recommended mandating that OMB use the same, generally more conservative economic growth projections as the Congressional Budget Office; more controls over emergency spending designated as such to get around discretionary budget caps; imposing unspecified “checks on mandatory spending”; and getting rid of “budget gimmicks.”
Thursday’s hearing was the fifth time the select committee held a public hearing, and it could be the last one. Under the law that established the panel, it doesn’t need to have more than five public hearings, but Womack said the panel may have more. If a majority of members of each party on the committee can agree on changes to the budget process, the measure would receive an expedited vote in the Senate, but the measure would still be subject to filibuster, and there is no guarantee of House action in the statute.