October 1, the beginning of each fiscal year, has become synonymous with appropriations battles and threats of government shutdowns. However, many thoughtful ideas for reform could help ease the logjam, such as biennial budgeting.
Biennial budgeting would require Congress to create a budget for two-year cycles instead of annually. These cycles could be implemented in two different ways: the “stretch” model and the “split-sessions” model. With the “stretch” model, Congress would have two years to develop a budget for the next biennium. The “split-sessions” model, which is far more commonly proposed, would require Congress to pass budget and appropriations bills in the first session, and reserve the second session for authorizations, oversight, and emergency appropriations. This model has numerous advantages.
More Time for Substantive Debate
From a legislative perspective, the “split-sessions” model would reduce the amount of time lawmakers spend on budgeting, thereby freeing up bandwidth to spend more time on other important issues facing the country. Congress could use the additional time to construct and negotiate budget and appropriations bills, instead of simply doing the bare minimum: continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills. To that end, Dan Crippen, former Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), has testified that biennial budgeting “could help ease the annual logjam of budget legislation that has contributed to… difficulties in the annual appropriations process.”
A “split-sessions” system would also improve executive agency planning and performance. The existing system creates an environment of uncertainty for agencies; they can’t engage in long-term planning because they never know what their budgets will be beyond one year. Moreover, the budgeting process is burdensome and prevents agencies from carrying out other activities. Susan Irving of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that a two-year budget cycle could result in better financial management and program evaluation for agencies. She argued that the potential benefits of biennial budgeting appeared to be “quite strong” for agency officials.
Support for biennial budgeting has been building for a while in the policy community. Former Representative Leon Panetta, who also served as chairman of the House Budget Committee, introduced the first biennial budgeting bill in 1977. Although it didn’t pass, the bill was reintroduced several times and kick-started the dialogue. Since then, many states have implemented two-year budget cycles. In 2003, the Colorado Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee reported that biennial budgeting has facilitated better long-term planning and performance evaluation in the state.
Recent Legislative Initiatives
Former CBO and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Alice Rivlin and former Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), long-time proponents of biennial budgeting, recently highlighted it again along with other proposed reforms to improve the federal budget process. Representatives Reid Ribble (R-WI) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR) reintroduced a biennial budgeting bill just last March. Their bipartisan bill, called the Biennial Budgeting and Enhanced Oversight Act of 2015, is currently in committee and already has 200 cosponsors. On the other side of the capitol, Senators Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) have garnered support from 21 cosponsors for a comparable bill, the Biennial Budgeting and Appropriations Act.
When Congress fails in performing its most basic function of adopting a budget, reform is necessary. Improvements like biennial budgeting can begin to ease the budget gridlock and put an end to imprudent budget-making.