How to Cover a Process That’s Been Broken for Years

By Chris Adams

In the last 42 years, Congress has passed its mandatory budget resolutions just six times – the last was14 years ago. Every other year, the budget resolution was passed late (27 times) or not at all (nine times).

But the spending continues apace, leading to massive yearly deficits and a ballooning national debt.

In a session with National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows, Robert Bixby of The Concord Coalition explained how that happened – and whether it’s likely to change. Bixby is executive director of the organization that studies and advocates against the growing national debt.

Bixby laid out the budget process on paper: The first Monday in February, the president submits a budget proposal to Congress. Congressional committees submit their views to the relevant budget committees, which pass their resolutions. Congress as a whole follows suit, then the appropriations committees do their part, and by the end of September, Congress completes action on annual appropriation bills. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

That process never happens.

“The budget process is almost non-existent,” Bixby said. “It exists on paper. … It’s still there and we have to deal with it. But it’s nowhere near the tight process it was designed to be.”

Instead, Congress relies on stop-gap measures and catchall spending bills to keep government payments flowing.

Bixby led fellows through the current budget – how much is spent, how much revenue comes in – and how that will play out over the long term. The biggest drivers of the long-term trends are Social Security, health care costs and interest on the national debt. On top of that, the state of the U.S. economy is a big driver in federal revenues.

There are three big big-ticket items that the government can’t really control: interest rates, the underlying economy, and the underlying cost of providing health care, he said.

In the meantime, Congress is constantly bickering about the relatively small discretionary spending – programs such as education and transportation and the like.

“We’re having dysfunctional fights about the parts of the budget that are not growing the fastest,” he said.

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