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Biennial Budget Blues

Michael J. Ring

As the gavel fell on the first session of the 106th Congress last week, a bipartisan coalition of House lawmakers introduced a resolution to reform the current annual budget and appropriations processes in favor of a biennial cycle.

After surviving several bitter budget battles in recent years, members of both parties are attracted to the idea. The 244 co-sponsors of the measure introduced by House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., span the ideological spectrum from liberal to moderate to conservative. With over half the House members co-sponsoring the resolution and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s, R-Ill., leadership team on board, the measure is virtually assured of passage in the House. The bill’s prospects in the other branches of government are not as clear, but the initiative is gaining momentum as presidential frontrunner George W. Bush, R-Texas, endorsed the idea recently. His state’s legislature and several others have budgeted biennially for some time.

The attractions that this process holds are not difficult to discern. No item in Washington causes more partisan acrimony than the budget, and this measure, its proponents argue, would slash the budget vitriol in half. In an atmosphere poisoned by impeachment fallout and sharp ideological divisions, anything that reduces partisan rancor is obviously attractive. Spending less time on the budget would free Congress’ time to consider other bills. Given the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ recent budget shenanigans, where a four-month delay in passing the budget left little time to debate other measures, a reduction of time spent by any level of government on a budget would be welcomed by many. And as the government is flush with cash, recent budgets have again become laden with pork. Halving the number of budgets needing to be drafted halves the opportunity for members to sneak in a host of riders which could cover anything from aardvark research to zucchini subsidies.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Half the bickering, half the acrimony, half the time, half the opportunities to put in wasteful riders. But a closer look at the situation demonstrates that for all the flaws of the current annual budgeting process, it is still more desirable than this biennial alternative.

First, the switch to a biennial process would weaken the powers of rank-and-file members. Pork to one district is a vital project to another, and each member should have as equal an opportunity as possible to fight for the interests of his or her district. Currently members have an opportunity each and every year to scrutinize the work of the Appropriations and Budget Committees and propose changes and amendments. Under the biennial proposal they will only have one such opportunity in each two-year Congress. Power would consolidate in the hands of Appropriations and Budget Committee members and the House and Senate leadership teams, and these members could easily insert their own pet projects into budget and appropriations bills. Though it may be harder for rank-and-file members to attach pork-barrel riders to budget bills, the greater power vested in the Budget and Appropriations Committees would make it even easier for those members to do so. The expected reduction in pork is not worth turning the Appropriations and Budget Committees into more oligarchial ogres than they already are.

Second, a biennial process would lessen the pressure Congress and President feel to insure a budget is passed as quickly as possible once a deadline passes. Stopgap spending bills and government shutdowns serve as reminders to our elected officials that a budget is overdue and that one should be drafted with all due speed. If the players know that, as is the current case in our annual budgeting process, that the next regularly-scheduled appropriations battle is only months away, they will feel extraordinary pressure to cut a deal and be done with it when a budget is overdue. In a biennial system, however, no such battle looms the following year and the temptations to continue bickering rather than compromise would be great.

Third, a biennial budget process would be manna from heaven for lobbyists. With the process concentrated in the hands of a few, lobbyists friendly with key congressmen should have even less difficulty than they do now in making sure their pet project is written into the federal budget.

Fourth, a biennial budget deprives the federal government of flexibility in setting appropriations. Some programs may need more money in certain years while others could make do with less. Under a biennial process legislators will have to predict spending needs two years in advance. This proposition is tricky and dangerous should unforseen spending needs arise.

But the most fundamental reason as to why the biennial budget system should not be implemented is that it does not attack the root causes of the lack cooperation in Washington. Instead of promoting compromise, this process would only shift the times at which partisan attacks occur.

Legislators should be commended for fighting passionately for their ideals and constituents, but they must also learn when to compromise. That lesson is lost on many members of the present Congress, which tends to polarize into ideological factions rather than come together and pass meaningful if imperfect legislation. The real problem regarding the battle of the budget is the hostile behavior of representatives, senators, and the President. Nothing in this proposal attacks that root aggression. It may be desirable to spark a partisan war biennially rather than annually, but it is even more desirable to produce a budget that, while certain to open some honest disagreement, would not cause any party to become obstructionist.