Whither the Budget Committee? Wither the Budget Committee 

A central question in process reform will be the nature, role, and jurisdiction of the Committees on the Budget. The spectrum of action runs from strengthening these committees, making them more able to serve the function for which they were created, to the opposite end, which is their abolition. The latter option, oddly, is the more likely of the two. For the past several years, it has become very clear that Congress can operate without the budget committees. Even Senator Enzi has openly called for the elimination of his own committee

In the House it became crystal clear in the second session of the 114th Congress when something new happened: a session of Congress elapsed without any sort of budget resolution for fiscal year 2017 in place at all. H. Con. Res. 27 (114th Congress) passed the House budget Committee, but was then ignored and faded from view, unable to gain the votes necessary to pass the floor. Appropriation bills were still able to be considered, even without the 302(a) allocation normally considered essential. Then H. Res. 5 (115th Congress) was adopted, which significantly diminishing the role of the Budget Committee. 

Still, while a full blown elimination of the Committee is unlikely, the idea of recreating it as a “Leadership Committee” is not. What one of those looks like in the Senate is difficult to say, since it is a much more decentralized institution and it’s hard to point to a precedent that might serve as a model. 

In the House, though, a very clear model exists, one which in fact has overlapping jurisdiction with the Budget Committee already, and in fact has a single subcommittee devoted to Budget process already in existence: The House Rules Committee. Were the Budget Committee to be created as a second Rules Committee, or merged with it in some fashion, it would essentially cease to exist as an independent entity. The Rules Committee itself is usually considered the “handmaiden of the Speaker”, or even less kindly, a “how high” committee – as in its answer when asked to jump by the Speaker. 

The primary budget law, the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, created these two committees, and while their jurisdictions have expanded considerably since that law’s enactment, they remain institutionally weak. The constituency for budget law is nonexistent, they have no jurisdiction over any programs anyone wants, and the Committees’ main role is to act as a scold, forever admonishing Committees, Members, and not least their own Leadership, as to why bills cannot be brought to the floor when they violate a seemingly obscure, and surely complex, budget rule.

In the past four years, they have virtually collapsed along with the process. Ironically, Congress has agreed to Budget resolutions, but the past two (S. Con. Res. 3 (115th Congress) and H. Con. Res. 71 (115th Congress), have been largely if not solely done for the purpose of producing reconciliation bills, and their important, if limited, pivot around the Senate’s supermajority three-fifths voting requirement.

The Appropriations process certainly needs work. It has not worked well in memory, and the difficulty in getting appropriation bills done on time has been a problem since World War II. It was a factor in changing the fiscal year from July to October 1, done by the aforementioned Budget Act in 1974. One proposal that has kicked around for a while is to change the fiscal year to the calendar year. This would allow it to follow the legislative calendar more closely, though it makes for a lousy Christmas.

When even Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee Enzi has openly pondered whether budget reform should include getting rid of these committees, things are not going swimmingly.