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Building a Better Budget Process

Congress’ continued failure to meet budget deadlines has prompted widespread calls to improve the budget process, and the recent Bipartisan Budget Act established a joint select committee to examine the budget and appropriations process and recommend reforms. Meanwhile, under the auspices of the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, a diverse group of stakeholders released consensus recommendations today to advance the discussion.

Convergence convened individuals from a wide range of constituencies and perspectives to seek agreement on building a better budget process. My colleague Joel Friedman and I were part of that group. Here are some of the group’s conclusions:

  • Some parts of the budget process work well. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation provide high-quality, independent analysis that’s critical for making sound budgetary decisions. Congress should give these agencies sufficient resources to carry out their responsibilities.
  • Credible, timely information matters. To make budget information more accessible to the public, CBO should issue a “Fiscal State of the Nation” report in presidential election years that clearly presents the budgetary outlook. In addition, on a rolling four-year schedule, the Government Accountability Office should review the performance of “budget portfolios” — major groups of federal spending and revenue programs covering policy areas such as retirement, health, and infrastructure — in meeting national policy objectives.
  • Aligning the budget and electoral cycles may help change norms around the process and generate more timely budget decisions. The President and Congress should adopt a statutory "Budget Action Plan” at the start of each new Congress. It would set limits on discretionary appropriations for the next two years, raise the debt limit, potentially include "reconciliation instructions” for relevant congressional committees to make changes to revenues and entitlement programs, and assess the effects of these elements on the long-term fiscal outlook. The plan is designed to encourage policymakers to make key budget decisions earlier, and to reduce the likelihood that policymakers could use threats to shut down the government or default on the debt as political weapons.

The failings of the budget process reflect a broader erosion of congressional norms and a rise in partisanship. Process reforms alone cannot force the President and Congress to act responsibly on budget issues, nor will they solve the nation’s long-run fiscal challenges. But establishing new norms can raise the odds that the budget process will function more clearly and predictably.

The Convergence group’s full report may be found here.