To an outsider, the federal budget process can be both opaque and frustrating. The federal fiscal year ends on September 30th every year, yet only four times in the last three decades, and not since 1997, have appropriations bills funding all federal agencies passed by that date. In order to buy more time to debate and pass full-year appropriations bills, Congress passes short-term stopgap measures called Continuing Resolutions (CRs). While CRs allow Congress to prevent a government shutdown by extending federal funding authority, they generally provide for only limited changes to policy or programmatic spending levels. In recent years, the Congressional budget process has been particularly maligned by endless CRs. In Fiscal Year 2011, Congress passed seven separate CRs to delay a decision on annual funding until April 2011. Only after negotiations between the White House and bipartisan Congressional leadership was an agreement reached at the last possible hour to pass an eighth CR that would extend funding through September and avert a government shutdown.
With mounting frustration over its inability to pass annual budgets in a timely and cooperative process, there is growing support within Congress for a process that would reduce budgetary conflicts – the development of biennial, rather than annual, budgets. Proponents suggest that requiring Congress to pass a budget that provides funding for two years, rather than one, will reduce the charged spending battles that have gripped Congress in recent months, provide federal agencies with greater budgetary certainty, and enable Congress to spend more time overseeing the expenditure of federal funding. Although not a new idea, biennial budgeting has rapidly gained prominent advocates on both sides of the political aisle in recent months. At the beginning of the 112th Congress, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) introduced the Biennial Budget Appropriations Act, which has gathered a bipartisan group of 32 cosponsors in the Senate. This week, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on reforming the federal budget process, at which both Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) pledged to work together to institutionalize a biennial budget. This pledge represented a significant reversal for Sen. Conrad, who had long used his prominent spot on the Budget Committee to oppose abandoning the annual budget process. Although support for a biennial budget has been more muted in the House of Representatives, Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) of the House Budget Committee has committed to advancing reform of the budget process over the coming months.
Many state and local governments already employ a biennial budgeting process. Do you live in a state or locality with biennial budgets? Would limiting federal budget debates to every other year mitigate partisan bickering or enable more gridlock by increasing the relative importance of each budget? Is the certainty of knowing funding levels for federal programs for the next two years worth limiting the timeframe in which your voice can have an impact on the federal budget? Would biennial budgeting help facilitate or hinder the flow of federal funding into your local parks and recreation agency?
By Jon Wisbey, The Ferguson Group