A New Cycle
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Soon after I took my first oath of office over 11 years ago, I co-sponsored a bill that would have put the American government on a two-year budget cycle. Now, as I approach the end of my time as majority leader of the Senate, I’m working with Senator Gregg to introduce a similar proposal as part of a broader package of budget reforms. My reason is simple: In today’s busy Congress, members just don’t have enough time to both pass a budget and monitor all of our existing government programs.
The budget for the next fiscal year allocates $2.8 trillion for everything from health care to space exploration. The process we use to produce it often results in a spending plan that’s late and programs that go on without oversight. Each year, Congress begins with a budget blueprint for the next year, moves on to a spring supplemental for the current year, and then to myriad required annual funding bills for the fiscal year that begins in the fall. The process often fails. Over the past 30 years, Congress has finished the appropriations bills on schedule only three times.
The problems go beyond perpetual tardiness. Congress doesn’t have time to make sure that programs accomplish what they’re set up to do. The Office of Management and Budget, indeed, reports that over a quarter of all federal programs either don’t work or can’t show any evidence that they do. Another 28% receive “adequate” ratings, indicating serious problems, while a mere 15% set and achieve the ambitious goals needed to earn OMB’s highest rating. Right now, over 15% of all federal spending, $160 billion, takes place without oversight or even formal permission to be funded. A lot of government programs, in short, just don’t work.
Since appropriations for many of these unaccountable programs get bundled into special spending bills that Congress needs to pass, members who want to can often attach earmarks for pet projects that don’t deserve federal tax dollars.
Under a bill that I’m sponsoring along with Senators Gregg, Lieberman, Pete Domenici, and others, the federal government would switch to a two year-budget cycle. Under our proposal, the President would submit a budget every odd-numbered year. Congress would then pass a budget blueprint and appropriate money to back it up.
During even-numbered years, when federal elections give Congress slightly less time for business, both the House and the Senate would have to devote themselves to oversight and authorization. While they might spend some time appropriating additional funds or cutting unworkable programs, congressmen and senators would have to focus on making sure things. More program administrators would have to appear before committees and answer tough questions about their programs’ effectiveness or lack thereof. Congress would also have more time to cut bad programs, expand good ones, and root out waste.
We know that a system like this can work. Roughly half of all states – 24 in all – already use two-year budgets and, in recent years, more have begun to adopt them.
The American people deserve careful oversight of their tax dollars. Right now, the budget process makes it very difficult for Congress to provide it. While a two year budget cycle won’t solve all our nation’s fiscal ill it would represent a major step in the right direction.
Dr. Frist is the majority leader of the Senate.