Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
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Co-Chair Lowey Proposes Reforms to the JSC

Sep 25, 2018 | Budget Process

The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform (JSC) continues to work on its recommendations, which are due at the end of November. Recent press reports indicate (paywall) that JSC Co-Chair Nita Lowey (D-NY) floated a list of possible recommendations to her colleagues.

CRFB, through our Better Budget Process Initiative (BBPI), has been active in suggesting positive and proactive reforms to the budget process, including specific recommendations for the JSC. We are glad to see Lowey looking at a broad range of reforms that include some of our suggestions. The JSC is charged with reporting legislation, so changes to either the House or Senate rules may just be a recommendation or part of the law.

Co-Chair Lowey’s proposals include:

  • Moving from an annual to a biennial budget resolution
  • Restoring the Conrad Rule for reconciliation bills and further disallowing deficit-increasing reconciliation instructions
  • Returning the House to pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules
  • Setting up a process by which the discretionary spending level can be adopted if Congress can’t agree on a budget resolution by May 15
  • Requiring the Appropriations Committees to adopt 302(b) allocations before reporting appropriations bills
  • Reforming or removing the debt ceiling
  • Removing a House rule that restricts the amount of time a member can serve on the Budget Committee
  • Promoting enactment of legislation to raise the discretionary caps in 2020 and 2021 after the current 2-year spending deal expires
  • Changing the baseline to use a multi-year average for disaster spending, rather than the most recent year
  • Improving the ability to make "cap adjustments" to 302(b) allocations
  • Asking OMB and Treasury to more quickly provide prior-year budget data to CBO to build the March baseline used for appropriations bills

Three of these proposals are among our recommendations: biennial budgeting, restoring the Conrad rule, and reforming the debt limit.

Biennial budgeting allows for a budget resolution every other year so that the budget timeline can match the House election timeline. Each new Congress could create a budget without having the same fiscal battles twice, although a “mini resolution” could make adjustments in the second year if necessary. We suggested this reform to the JSC as part of a package of ways to encourage timely budgeting and avoid crisis-driven budgets.

The Conrad Rule was established in a Senate budget resolution in 2007 by then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND). It prohibited reconciliation bills from increasing deficits in the first ten years of a budget. However, it was repealed in the 2015 budget resolution, which paved the way for lawmakers to add over $1.8 trillion to deficits over the next decade through the 2017 tax law. We suggested restoring the Conrad Rule to the JSC as part of a package to strengthen budget enforcement and prevent gimmicks. Lowey’s proposal not only restores the Conrad Rule but would also prohibit deficit-increasing reconciliation instructions in a budget (in addition to reconciliation bills). These reforms would be best done as changes to law, instead of rule changes which are more easily reversed.

Reforming the debt limit is an important consideration in the budget process. Lowey suggests that if the JSC will not tackle outright repeal, then they should look to ways that if a budget is passed then a spin-off piece of legislation should go to the President to suspend the debt limit. This is a variation on the so-called Gephardt Rule, which spun off a dollar amount increase in the debt limit commensurate with the budget resolution. For more on the Gephardt Rule, see our BBPI paper “Improving the Debt Limit.” We support reasonable reforms of the debt limit. Our suggestions to the JSC included reforming the debt ceiling to reduce the risk of default while linking it to tax and spending decisions.

The JSC has an important opportunity to improve our broken budget process. We continue to encourage them to reform the budget process to address the many problems and help lawmakers to budget more predictably, sustainably, and responsibly in the future. We commend Lowey for putting forward thoughtful and specific ideas.

More on the JSC and CRFB's recommendations: