Budget Process

Biennial and Joint Resolution: An Inadvertent Trial Run

In reviewing the budget procedural developments over the past several Congresses, a de facto combination of a Joint Budget Resolution and biennial budgeting has taken the place of the conventional annual budgeting, as originally envisioned by the Budget Act. A set pattern has emerged where ever two years or so, an agreement is reached whereby discretionary spending levels are set, and budgetary levels and amounts are established.

Agreements between Congress and the President is hardly new, with deals regularly being struck such as the various OBRA bills of the 1980s, and the bookends of the 1990s (Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 and the Budget Enforcement Act of 1997), with the more contentious and partisan Clinton Budget of 1993. What’s new is the regularity of the agreements, and how they’ve included, or supplanted, regular budgeting.

Consider the following:

Budget Control Act of 2011 (112th Congress)
Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 (113th Congress)
Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (114th Congress)
Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (115th Congress)

In terms of a Joint Resolution, all four included enforcement provisions that served as a budget resolution for the Senate, while  the BBA 2013 and BBA 2018 had such deeming resolutions for both House and Senate. The BCA had only one for the Senate, and the agreement behind the bill encompassed 10 years of discretionary spending limits (and the creation of the ill-fated Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) rather than two years. Even so, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (ATRA) must be viewed a companion Act to the BCA. This subsequent law was primarily intended to avert the “fiscal cliff” that was then heading toward the Nation, essentially the expiration of the tax rates initially enacted in 2001 and 2003 (the “Bush Tax Cuts”) with a broad based tax increase. A second part of the law, though, was its revision of the BCA and the spending limits for fiscal years 2013 and 2014. If one reviews section 901 of ATRA, the discretionary spending limits for those fiscal years are changed, essentially creating new allocations for discretionary spending, just as might occur in a joint budget resolution (on a biennial basis).

The BBA 2013 was particularly substantial in this regard: It included a section providing for the fiscal year 2014 budget resolution, but this was a result of negotiations between the Budget Committee Chairs, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan, on the fiscal year 2014 budget resolution, and conference meetings were held on S. Con. Res. 8 (113th Congress) to that end. A decision was made to make it a more comprehensive bill, which would change statute, and hence concurrent resolution became, in a sense, a joint budget resolution. Furthermore, it had included section 115 and section 116 for an optional fiscal year 2015 budget resolution for the House and the Senate, respectively.

The dismal aspect of that particular experience was that the House went through with drafting a fiscal year 2015 budget resolution, H. Con. Res. 96 (113th Congress), which was reported from committee and passed the House. That the Republican resolution would not be adopted buy the Senate (then in control by Democrats) was clear from the outset, and yet when no conference on a fiscal year 2015 budget resolution materialized, a deeming resolution, as had become typical, was necessary. Displaying a mystifying foolishness,  those making decisions in the House decided to “deem” the BBA 2013 resolution provisions in force rather than the newly written, and house-passed, budget resolution. H. Con. Res. 96 thus became a good budget resolution, with a good report was written on it (H. Rept. 113-403) that was ignored. What occurred though was very similar to a biennial budget resolution contained in a bill signed into law. Though not formally so, it could be seen as a joint biennial budget resolution. 

Advocates of these two ideas: a biennial budget and a joint budget resolution, would likely be aghast at anyone saying that the past few years are the way those ideas should be implemented, and they would be right. The sad fact, though, is that their ideas have been put into force, even if unintentionally and sloppily.