By Brian Pallasch, Managing Director, Government Relations and Infrastructure Initiatives, American Society of Civil Engineers
For decades, Congress has repeatedly failed to pass a budget on time, speeding toward budget deadlines as if we have miles of roadway ahead of us, when in reality, we’re laying down roadway as we are driving over it. This has only led to repeated crises—our government has shut down 20 times since 1976. If this were a bridge, we’d rate it as structurally deficient.
Unfortunately, Congress has failed to confront and correct the problem: our budget process is broken and needs fixing. I view this fundamentally as an engineering issue, and engineering problems are solvable—with enough hard work and smart planning engineers can reinforce a levee, repair a bridge, or build a road that stands the test of time. Legislative problems are solvable, too, so long as you work together to fix them.
Fortunately, we have some solutions. I partnered with a bipartisan coalition of budget and policy experts to create a blueprint for what these reforms could—and should—look like. Our group included government affairs professionals like myself representing veterans, millennials, children, universities, businesses, and so many other groups. Earlier this week, we delivered that plan, the Convergence Building a Better Budget Process Project, outlining the following steps:
- Create A Budget Action Plan—negotiated by the President and Congress at the beginning of a new Congress and enacted into law—to synchronize the budget cycle with the electoral cycle and to change expectations for the process. The plan would make certain key fiscal decisions – setting discretionary funding levels and adjusting the debt limit, for example – for a two-year period.
- Issue a Fiscal State of the Nation Report, published every four years at a key point in the national election cycle, to make the federal budget more accessible to the American public and elevate the discourse about the country’s finances.
- Conduct a review of the performance of portfolios of federal programs that involve long-term or inter-generational commitments (e.g., retirement security, health coverage, education or national security). This review conducted by Congress, through the Government Accountability Office, would reinforce the importance of the long-term effects of budget decisions.
- Strengthen the Budget Committees by revising the membership rules and assigning responsibility to create new expectations for the budget process so that Congress and the public can expect more timely action on budget decisions.
- Invest in agencies that support the congressional budget process, including the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), so these institutions can continue to provide high-quality and independent information the nation relies on in making budgetary choices.
We’ve drawn up plans to fix it, but now it’s up to Congress to act. I hope the members of the new select committee tasked with overhauling the budget process takes action.
Failing to confront a problem over and over just makes it worse. That’s the thing about deferred maintenance—eventually it catches up to you.
The Convergence group’s full report may be found here.