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The federal budget process is broken, and has been for quite a while.
Kurt Couchman, a senior fellow for fiscal policy at Americans for Prosperity, writes in The Hill that if Congress wants to fix the system, it should look to the states for a model.
The failure of the budget process is bipartisan. “No matter which party has controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House, Congress struggles to budget coherently,” Couchman writes. “The disjointed budget process is a major reason why.”
Part of the reason is that less than one-third of federal spending is part of the process. Mandatory spending – things like Social Security and Medicare – accounts for the rest. It’s this autopilot spending that is driving long-term deficit and debt problems.
Revenues are not typically part of the process, either, meaning,
“No member of Congress holistically affirms overall spending and revenue priorities. Trade-offs are implicit at best. Opportunity costs of policy choices are obscured. It’s difficult to move resources to higher-valued uses, to engage in effective management, or to be a policy entrepreneur.”
That’s not how it works outside Washington.
In every state, the governor proposes a budget, usually an integrated document that includes nearly all spending and revenue. That makes tradeoffs and outcomes clear, which makes choosing among priorities more transparent.
“In Congress,” writes Couchman, “a unified budget could work within the existing committee structure, and the Budget Committees could still start the process.”
Read more about how Congress can learn a lot from best practices in state legislatures.