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Stan Collender Testifies before US Senate Budget Committee

Stan Collender (MPP '76) is the Executive Vice President of Qorvis MSLGROUP.  He gave the following testimony before the United States Senate Committee on the Budget on April 27, 2016.

Chairman Enzi, Senator Whitehouse and members of the committee:

As a former intern and staff member of this committee from back when it began more than 40 years ago, and as someone who has devoted much of his career to the federal budget, I am of course delighted to provide the committee with my views on improving the congressional budget process.

But I can’t start my testimony with the standard line of commending the committee for holding this hearing.

How is it possible that the Senate Budget Committee that earlier this year flatly refused to invite the director of the Office of Management and Budget to testify and in so doing helped render the Obama 2017 budget irrelevant, is now holding a hearing to discuss, in part, whether the president’s budget is irrelevant and should be changed?

How is it possible that the same Senate Budget Committee that so far has refused to develop and vote on a budget resolution for the coming year is now holding a hearing to fix the budget process it refuses to follow?

To me, this hearing comes close to supplanting Leo Rosten’s explanation of the word “chutzpah” with a new instantly classic definition.

Rosten said that chutzpah was when a man who is convicted of murdering his parents then begs for mercy from the court because he’s an orphan.

Today this committee is the fiscal policy equivalent of that man. After first preventing the budget process from being implemented, it is now demanding that the process be changed so the committee can implement it.

My response to the big question you’re asking – how should the congressional budget process be changed at this moment – is simple: don’t do it. Whatever you do is far more likely to hurt than help.

The changes you make will have little positive impact on Congress’ ability and willingness to develop and implement an annual budget. The budget process will be at least as inefficient and infuriating with the changes you’re considering as it is now.

The existing budget process is not the problem. In fact, Congress doesn’t need a budget process at all. The U.S. Constitution gives the House and Senate all the power they need to develop, adopt and implement a budget for the coming year. Congress can do whatever its wants to do right now.

The problem is that the Senate Budget Committee, the full Senate and Congress as a whole can’t figure out what they want to do and no one is willing to compromise.

So, as this year’s almost nonexistent budget debate amply shows, nothing happens. The country goes without a budget, without a fiscal policy that except by accident is relevant to the current and projected economy, without appropriations and without many authorizations.

Instead we get shutdowns, threatened defaults, fiscal cliffs and totally ignored deadlines.

Instead of tinkering with the process, you should be developing a consensus about what the budget process should do.

Every previous congressional budget process was agreed to only when that type of consensus existed.

In 1974, the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act was adopted because there was an overwhelming agreement that Congress needed a process. This new process was outcome neutral; it could be used to increase or decrease the deficit and debt and any combination of revenue and spending cuts and raises was acceptable.

Several years later that outcome-neutral process was changed when a new consensus developed in Congress that reducing the deficit should be the goal. That deficit reduction process was itself revised when a consensus developed that Congress should only be held responsible for those parts of the budget within its immediate control. As a result, the PAYGO rules were put in place.

All of the other subsequently adopted procedural changes occurred when a new consensus developed about what the congressional budget process should do and how it should do it.

There is no such consensus today. The 100 voting members of the Senate likely have 100 different ideas of what the budget process should accomplish. Add the views of 435 members of the House and it’s hardly surprising that the congressional budget process has become totally dysfunctional.

Develop that missing consensus and it will be easy to design a new budget process. Without it, any budget process changes will be totally meaningless, uselessly symbolic, and a cynical hoax.

I’d like to comment briefly on four of the budget process changes this committee has recently mentioned.

The first is the supposedly new requirement that all spending must be authorized.

The U.S. Constitution only requires that spending be appropriated. Authorizations were created by Congress to give members who weren’t on the appropriations committees something to do. The fact that the authorization committees aren’t doing what some expect and that the United States is surviving without authorizations is a strong indication that these bills may have outlived their usefulness.

Besides, Congress already has the all the power it needs to pass authorizations, so the fact that it’s not doing that is a strong indication that it doesn’t want to. And, as the other perpetually missed budget process deadlines show conclusively, procedural fixes will always be ignored when Congress doesn’t want to do something.

The second is the now almost perennial proposal to change the congressional budget from a concurrent to a joint resolution so that it has to be signed by the president to go into effect.

This proposed change is totally misguided. It will so stymie the process that I can’t help but think it’s being suggested now solely for political reasons. The goal may well be to take the heat off Congress for not passing a budget by giving it the ability to send the president a ridiculous or hyperpartisan spending and revenue plan it knows she or he will veto.

The third is the plan to do away with the president’s budget because it’s too political.

Every president’s budget is both a political and accounting statement and is far more than just tables and charts with columns of numbers.

But the same can be said for every congressional budget resolution and the report that accompanies it. And the budget hearings and debates in the House and Senate are almost completely political.

Budgeting is the most political thing Congress and the White House do…or is supposed to do…every year. As we’ve seen with every congressional or presidential budget commission, even with the best of intentions there’s absolutely no way to remove the political considerations from any White House or congressional budget document or process.

The fourth is the two-year budget that supposedly will give Congress time to get everything done.

We have ample, direct precedent for knowing this won’t work. In 1974, the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act changed the start of the fiscal year from July 1 to October 1 to give Congress enough time to get all of its work done and avoid continuing resolutions. Four decades later we know the only thing this accomplished was to create a legislative rush in late September instead of late June. And, if anything, continuing resolutions are even more prevalent now than they were back then.

My biggest fear, however, isn’t that the budget work in Congress will expand to fill the amount of time two years provides; it’s that Congress at the same time will change the start of the fiscal year to January 1. If that January 1 start is after the election and there’s a two-year budget, Congress will never have to adopt a budget or be held accountable for not passing one before voters go to the polls.

That would be contrary to one of the major reasons the congressional budget process was established more than four decades ago. It will also be a political travesty.

For all these reasons I urge this committee to stop any consideration of one-off process changes like these and instead focus on developing the consensus on the budget that is completely absent from the debate.

Until you do, hearings like this will continue to be nothing more than diversions for purely PR purposes.

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The views expressed in this testimony are those of Stan Collender alone. They have not be reviewed or approved by any company or organization with which he is affiliated.