Four years ago this month, we joined with 27 other Americans to release recommendations to reform how our government works, improve the management of our elections, and promote more civic engagement.
At the time, the Commission on Political Reform, or CPR, was grappling with how to enable our institutions to better function in an era marked by hyperpartisanship. We did not think the tone and dysfunction in Washington could get worse — and yet it has.
There are, however, several reasons to hope that change could finally be on the horizon. Returning to traditional paths for legislating that foster consensus-building, committees in both chambers have passed a bipartisan Water Resources Development Act, the Senate marked up a bipartisan farm bill, the House approved bipartisan legislation to reform the federal prison system, and both chambers are moving to address the opioids epidemic. However, the most important signal may be the Senate’s bipartisan agreement to move appropriations bills on the floor through so-called regular order rather than a massive, eleventh-hour spending package.
This would indeed be a significant accomplishment. Congress has failed to pass a budget resolution on time for seven of the last 10 years — compared to just four times in the previous 34 years. Further, Congress has passed all 12 appropriations bills by the annual Oct. 1 deadline just four times in the last 40 years. From 2011 to 2016, not a single appropriations bill was passed by Oct. 1.
This year’s hopes aside, to more systematically address the annual budget and appropriations debacle, Congress recently created the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform. This panel will examine how procedural changes could help overcome the political barriers that have made temporary, stopgap resolutions to avoid government shutdowns and all-encompassing, last-minute “omnibus” appropriations bills the new normal.
If the committee can arrive at consensus, it would report its recommendations and legislative language to Congress and the president by the end of November, and the Senate would have to vote on a motion to consider the bill before the conclusion of the 115th Congress.
As is evident from the joint committee’s three public hearings, its task is herculean. We propose that the panel adopt three of our CPR recommendations to dramatically improve the budget and appropriations process.
First, Congress should codify its recent tendency toward approving biennial budgets, including two-year budget resolutions and appropriations bills. The traditional annual budgeting process leaves the bulk of members out of decision-making, is disconnected from the authorization process, and produces short-sighted policymaking. Additionally, moving to a two-year cycle would provide more time for the Appropriations committees to conduct vital oversight of programs within their jurisdictions.
Second, the Senate filibuster has been the subject of much debate and maligning over the years. We support maintaining the current 60-vote threshold for legislation to preserve the Senate’s unique, invaluable role as the body that protects the rights of the minority. At the same time, CPR recommended eliminating the ability to filibuster motions to move to consideration of legislation. The joint committee should apply this principle to the appropriations process.
Third, in exchange for limiting debate on the motion to proceed, we urged that each side of the aisle be accorded a minimum number of amendments to each piece of legislation. Both the House and Senate should adopt this provision for appropriations.
As noted by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Healthy Congress Index, both chambers have restricted the open process for debating legislation. In this current Congress, the Senate considered just 179 amendments, far fewer than the 535 in the 114th Congress and 312 in the 113th. The House has considered the most legislation of any recent Congress under closed rules, which do not allow any amendments. The appropriations bills are a good starting point for a more inclusive, open legislative process.
More than anything, we believe it is critical the joint committee advance some reforms, even if they do not address every issue. The American public needs to see that members share their frustration with the current dysfunction, and that Congress is capable of reforming itself. At its core, funding the government is a fundamental responsibility of Congress and if it can’t do that well, how can the public trust lawmakers to tackle the vexing issues of immigration, economic growth, deficit reduction and entitlement reform?
The Commission on Political Reform provides a blueprint around which the joint committee could get bipartisan consensus. Congress was right to establish the committee, and all members must now encourage those on the panel to come together around commonsense reforms.
Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, both former Senate majority leaders, now co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform.