“Reform” is all the rage these days in the political campaigns. Washington needs to be reformed. Congress needs reforms. The White House needs reforms, and even the judiciary isn’t immune to the clarion calls. What’s missing from the rhetoric is where the reforms need to start.
Reform is a huge concept that means a lot of different things to a lot of people. The Congressional Institute has been compiling various reform proposals designed to stimulate discussion over what the Congress of tomorrow should look like, starting with the budget.
It should be a no-brainer that under a Republican House run by a speaker who’s a former Budget Committee chairman there should be a budget. But even this most basic operation of government has fallen victim to the congressional dysfunction. To break the gridlock, we have to step aside from the partisanship through a Joint Committee on Reform — a bicameral, bipartisan committee that can take up significant reforms that will put Congress back to work.
Think about this: The budget adopted last year calls for $1 trillion in discretionary spending over the course of this year and another $2.7 trillion in mandatory spending. The plan called for balancing the budget by 2024. Even that plan barely passed on a party-line vote. Very few authorization bills passed, and all of the appropriation bills had to be lumped into one humongous bill in order to keep the government from shutting down.
It’s no wonder that American families have such a low opinion of Congress. For the first time in our history, a majority of Americans don’t approve of the job their individual congressional representative is doing (they have rarely approved of Congress as a whole). Obviously, things need to change — Congress needs to adopt serious budget reforms, and those reforms have to be supported by the rank-and-file members, who need to be able to sell the ideas to their constituents without whose support Congress’ integrity as an institution will continue to suffer.
Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, recently put forth a memo with some common-sense budget reforms that would change the House rules to stop unauthorized appropriations from exceeding the amount allowed by the budget. Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia has also been working on and encouraging numerous reforms to the 42-year old Budget Act of 1974.
Another smart piece of legislation was introduced recently by GOP Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican. The Unauthorized Spending Accountability (USA) Act echoes themes from Mr. McClintock’s proposals of enforcing House rules to prevent appropriations for agencies that have not been authorized. Ms. McMorris Rodgers said this about the bill: “Today, people fear that they are losing representative government and we’re frustrated because the power to make the best decisions for ourselves, for our families, for our community is being taken away by a government that thinks it knows best. It isn’t being held accountable.”
But it’s hard for people to have faith in Congress if it doesn’t fulfill its own role under the Constitution.
The best way to advance the debate on various reforms would be for Congress to create a bipartisan and bicameral Joint Committee on Reform, where members of both parties and both chambers participate in reforming the current dysfunction in Congress.
Every generation or so, Congress has recognized the need to reform itself, update its rules, and adopt processes made possible by changing technologies and increased knowledge. That’s where a Joint Committee comes in, and Congress should take immediate steps to create this committee and give its lawmakers the authority to recommend specific reforms that will help create the Congress of tomorrow, one that the American people need and deserve.
There are a number of ideas that have been proposed that should be debated regarding budget policy. For instance, Congress could:
• Establish a biennial macro-budget process that provides two-year binding levels of revenues and expenditures, containing budget projections for five years only. The budget resolution would also include, as a point of reference, projected spending levels for mandatory programs. The resolution would still require annual appropriations.
• Expedite procedures for House-Senate conference on budget resolutions, appointing conferees, instructing conferees and limitations on amendments in the Senate.
• Provide for the inclusion in the budget of long-term estimates for entitlement programs and consider including among reconciliation instructions provisions to ensure the long-term viability of those programs.
Congress shouldn’t enact the Joint Committee with an idea of what the final recommendations would look like. That would undermine the openness of the process.
• Mark Strand is president of the Congressional Institute.