So far, the “The Missing Debate” has covered a wide range of policy imperatives, from the future of the Federal Reserve to housing policy to K-12 education. While we’ve discussed a wide range of potential solutions, we’re under no illusion that they are likely to make headway in Washington’s current political climate.
When this vicious electoral season comes to a close, we’re likely to be left with a further divided government and an increasingly polarized electorate. Perhaps the biggest question regarding any policy agenda is whether there is any hope for lawmakers to break through the dysfunction that has paralyzed Congress over the past few years.
For that reason, the final question of the series focuses on reforms that could improve relations between the two parties and make lawmakers more willing to cooperate and pass needed legislation. What is the one most important reform the next administration and Congress should champion to improve the political atmosphere in Washington?
Reid Ribble is a Republican congressman representing Wisconsin’s 8th congressional district.
The details of budget process policy aren’t usually exciting enough to make it onto the evening news, but they are an extremely important part of our federal political system. In fact, reforming the way we conduct our budgeting from an annual to an every-other-year process could be an essential tool for reducing gridlock in Washington. It would remove budgeting from election years and ensure that spending our nation’s money does not become a political football. Unfortunately, this discussion has been completely absent in the 2016 election discussions
You show me your budget, and I will tell you what your priorities are. The same is true for members of Congress when determining how to spend taxpayer dollars: We fight to spend money on the priorities of the people we represent, and we are judged by how we vote on spending bills. In order to budget the nation’s money, Congress is required to pass a budget specifying our overall spending cap and then 12 appropriations bills every year, roughly one bill to fund each federal agency. This process is meant to stretch over the year with each bill’s merits debated in public, and then voted on by Congress so that constituents can easily understand what their representatives are prioritizing.
However, the process very rarely works that way, and in election years, it’s even worse — we have failed to pass a budget altogether in three-quarters of the past eight election years. In order to fill the gap and avoid a government shutdown, Congress usually passes short-term funding bills that are negotiated behind closed doors by congressional leadership. These funding measures roll all spending provisions into a single vote, can be thousands of pages long, and usually can’t be amended by members of Congress, who often have only 24 hours to read them. This effectively silences the voices of millions of Americans by denying their representatives the opportunity to work on their behalf.
This is a failure to govern, and it’s inexcusable. Many reforms have been suggested to improve the process, but none has garnered more bipartisan support — or total support — than my Biennial Budgeting and Enhanced Oversight Act. The bill would change our broken annual budget system to an every-other-year budget process.
By switching to a biennial budgeting system, we would finally remove budgeting from election years. Instead, Congress would spend the second year in each biennium conducting the detailed oversight of government agencies and programs that is currently being neglected. Having a two-year budget would encourage transparency and cost savings by allowing federal agencies to plan ahead and budget money over a longer term. Perhaps more importantly, it would significantly reduce the brinkmanship of shutdown politics, which has become all too common in recent years. This brinkmanship has harmed our political system, our economy and our international reputation, and it is well past time for it to end.
Biennial budgeting reform is supported by both a Republican majority in Congress and a Democratic executive branch. People across the political spectrum agree the budget process is broken, but there has been absolutely no debate in this election season about how we dice up trillions of dollars each year. I would suggest that we start by debating the solutions like biennial budgeting that already have broad support.