The House and Senate Budget Committees were established in 1974. Record deficits during the previous decade -- averaging a quaint $10 billion per year between 1964 and 1974 -- raised concerns about Congress' ability to maintain fiscal discipline. Congressional reformers argued that the budget committees would improve Congress' fiscal discipline by enforcing coordination between the revenue committees (House Ways and Means and Senate Finance), and the spending committees (House and Senate Appropriations Committees). Using points of order and the reconciliation process, Congress could theoretically use the budget resolution to exercise control over spending.
Under the Congressional Budget Act, Congress is required to pass a Concurrent Budget Resolution by April 15 of each year, establishing limits on revenues and spending. The budget resolution sets a "top-level" spending limit for the Appropriations Committees. Using this top-level spending limit (a 302(a) allocation), the Appropriations Committees go about funding the federal government through its 12 spending bills.
Creation of the budget committees failed in its main goal of enforcing fiscal discipline in Congress. Over the last 40 years deficits have increased with regularity. Furthermore, in the last four years (going on five years) Congress has failed to pass a budget resolution.
Rather than an exercise in policy-making, the congressional budget process has metamorphosed into political theater. Each of the political parties uses the budget committee to put forward a budget proposal that appeals to their political base. The opposing party licks its chops, combing through the proposal looking for items to use in attack ads.
Last year, House Republican Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (WI) used his budget proposal to lay out a conservative vision of the budget. It gained strong support among conservatives, passed the House, and landed him the number-two spot on the Republican's presidential ticket. But it was not approved by the Senate; and it was used by Democrats to hammer Republican congressional candidates who voted in favor of it. Democrats claim that the Ryan Budget helped them pick up House seats in 2012.
In a repeat, the Republican House passed a similar budget plan today that aims at budget-balance over 10 years. Will it pass the Senate? It was offered as an amendment in the Senate and it failed. Will Democrats use votes for the Ryan Budget in next year's midterm elections? You bet. The Senate engaged in an epic round of amendment activity last week. Votes on each amendment will be parsed for use in campaign ads. But the Budget will not be passed by the House. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell gleefully admitted as much, "The only good news is that the fiscal path the Democrats laid out in their Budget Resolution won't become law." Sadly, McConnell heralded this dysfunction calling it "one of the Senate's finest days in recent years." The budget process has become the epicenter of partisan conflict; a place for partisan warriors to sharpen their knives for biannual electoral battles.
It would be entertaining if not for one thing: This is no way to run a government.
The absence of a Budget Resolution--there is no hope that a Budget Resolution will pass both chambers--impedes the ability of Congress to exercise its "power of the purse" through the appropriations process. Lacking a 302(a) allocation, the Appropriations Committee cannot rationally allocate money to each of its subcommittees where Department- and programmatic-level funding decisions are made. It is the appropriations process that allows Congress to exercise power over the behavior of the executive branch of government through its funding decisions.
The collapse of the budget process needlessly ratchets up the political stakes surrounding the annual spending bills. Government is mostly funded through continuing resolutions passed under threat of a government shutdown. Continuing resolutions limit the ability of the appropriations committees to carefully craft spending bills and impose congressional spending priorities on the executive, thereby eroding congressional power relative to the president.
If the budget committees were ever useful, they are not useful anymore. Budget resolutions feed partisan tensions, consume a great deal of time, reinforce negative stereotypes about Congress, and undermine Congress' rightful role in determining government spending decisions. It is time to return to a less formalized process in which leaders of the revenue and spending committees informally agree -- outside of the partisan spotlight -- on revenue and spending levels, and return the power of the purse to its rightful place in the Congress: the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.