Barron’s D.C. man argues that the federal budget process has outlived its usefulness

Forty years after Congress rewrote the process used to put together the federal budget, Jim McTague of Barron’s argues in his latest “D.C. Current” column that it’s time to consider another rewrite.

Those Tea Party nut cases might not be completely crazy, after all. No matter how much it upsets us, their spirited dust-ups with Democrats and members of their own Republican Party over the debt ceiling have had some positive impact. Foremost, they illustrate dysfunction of the federal budgeting process. Congress rewrote its taxing and spending formula 40 years ago with the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 — and budgeting has raced downhill faster than Mlles. Gisin and Maze ever since. The Tea Party’s periodic fiscal-cliff shenanigans, as well as long-term deficit projections, drive home the point that the process is flawed.

The quadrennial anniversary of the law, which was passed to stop illegal cuts to the budget by President Richard Nixon, is a perfect time for Congress to re-examine it. Some budget experts say that Congress should scrap the law and start from scratch. The lawmakers have plenty of latitude: There’s no budgeting blueprint to follow in the U.S. Constitution, other than that Congress has the exclusive authority to tax and to spend. …

… Since the 1974 law’s enactment, there have been many occasions when Congress failed to pass a budget, relying instead on “continuing resolutions” to fund programs at prior-year levels. Additionally, so much federal spending has become mandatory, as in the case of Social Security and other entitlements, that members of Congress have lost the ability to vote on program budgets on an annual basis, says Lawrence Lindsey, director of the National Economic Council in 2001-02, when George W. Bush was president. Debt-ceiling votes often provide members of Congress with their only real opportunity to protest the runaway growth of mandatory spending, says Lindsey, who thinks the law needs to be re-examined.

THE 1974 LAW was “a well-intentioned reform that was a post-Watergate effort to safeguard the legislature’s power of the purse against the challenge of the imperial presidency,” says Iwan Morgan, professor of United States studies at the Institute of the Americas, University College London. Initially, he says, it added more confusion to the budgeting process.

Don Wolfensberger, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, in 2006 recommended that, in light of soaring deficits, Congress adopt a disciplined budgeting process. Last week, he said, “I think revisiting the budget act is more important now than it was then, given our fiscal debacles over the last few years, leaping from one cliff to another.”

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