The politics and tradeoffs of congressional budget process reform

In February, Congress reached a long-awaited budget deal to set overall levels of discretionary federal spending for this year and next. Included in the package was language establishing a new Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform. The 16-member panel—comprised of equal numbers of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats—is charged with developing recommendations and legislative language to improve Congress’s fiscal functioning by November 30, 2018. The committee convened for the first time on March 8, with additional meetings and public hearings expected in the coming months.

Will the committee succeed? With only its first meeting under its belt, it’s too soon to say. The JSC has a relatively short amount of time to complete its task, and that window includes this fall’s midterm elections. Success will depend, in part, on just how much the panel tries to tackle. Indeed, some budget analysts, like the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Bill Hoagland, have recommended the panel take a focused approach, tackling just a few issues.

Whether the committee tries to go big or keeps its focus narrow, committee members would be wise to consider the incentives facing various groups of legislators. These incentives are central to understanding both how Congress reached its current state of budgetary dysfunction, and how various changes may, or may not, improve the functioning of the process. Consider first the motivations of individual rank-and-file members of both the House and Senate. On one hand, members have an incentive for the appropriations process to run predictably. Even if the process isn’t a top of mind issue for most voters, many legislators will have important voices in their districts—research universities, government contractors, state and local government officials—for whom certainty is important.

At the same time, rank-and-file legislators…

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