Biennial budget — old idea gains traction in Congress

An old idea got an accidental tryout this week, as Congress and the White House agreed on a two-year federal budget deal. Members from both parties said they’d like to make that idea permanent.

“It’s a good idea that’s time has really come and I think it focuses on the most important thing that we need to do that we don’t do, which is oversight and accountability,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee told Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “If you don’t carve out the time and make sure you have it, you’ll never take it voluntarily and we don’t have the time under the current annual appropriation business to do a true oversight that we should, and because of that we spend money that we shouldn’t and waste money that we shouldn’t waste.”

Isakson isn’t alone in championing the idea of a biennial budget. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, introduced a bill calling for adoption of a two-year budget cycle and hosted a hearing Nov. 4 to discuss the subject.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga)
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga)

“The worst kept secret in Washington is that we essentially operate on a two-year budget already,” Enzi said during the hearing.  “In 2011, 2013 and now 2015, Congress has set spending limits for the following two fiscal years. But these deals have been negotiated without the transparency and predictability that regular order provides. True reform of the federal budget process would formalize biennial budgeting and move spending decisions from the shadows and into the light, where they belong.”

Enzi said if Congress spent less time on setting budget targets, it would have more time to focus on management and oversight.

“Congress’s energy and attention should be redirected to reviewing all federal spending,” Enzi said. “By moving to a two-year budget cycle, lawmakers will have more time to focus on the true drivers of spending and debt, which will help make our government more accountable and ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.”

Isakson sees the biennial budget as the right approach, but he said that convincing his fellow lawmakers to adopt it would be challenging — though not impossible.

“Legislators hate to give up any of the appropriations responsibility and they’d appropriate every other day if they could,” he said. “So if you convince them that just because you do two-year budgets and two-year appropriation bills doesn’t mean you don’t do supplemental adjustments as time goes on and as it’s needed. Once you convince them you’re not taking away their authority or their prioritization, you’re just putting more responsible accountability on their back, they’ll be happy to sign up and join us.”

If Congress were operating under a biennial budget cycle, for example, lawmakers would pass a two-year budget in 2017 and then they would spend 2018 — an election year — conducting accountability hearings rather than hashing out appropriations.

“Wouldn’t it change the paradigm in America, if instead of talking about how much bacon you can bring home in an election year, you talked about how many savings you were going to find because of accountability?” Isakson asked. “That’s what makes it work.”

Isakson said he has significant bipartisan support for a biennial budget. A few years back, when a similar measure was up for a vote in the Senate, it garnered 68 votes.

The downside of a two-year budget plan would be to make appropriations one year but fail to revisit the appropriations through reconciliation or supplemental appropriations in the next year.

“Oversight is the insurance policy to make sure that you don’t have an abuse or a failure of the system,” Isakson said.

The kind of oversight and accountablity he’s describing will occur in 2017, when the current two-year budget enters its second year.

“The motivation to do a two-year budget deal was to not have the budget come up during the election year of 2016,” Isakson said. “That was the primary motivation. Hopefully, in election years in the future, we’ll have oversight being what’s coming up, not spending money; where we’ll be looking at where we can save rather than where can we spend and then we’ll have a real victory for the American people.”

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