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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Thune Proposes Biennial Budget: Cool Reform or Cop-Out?

Seantor John Thune spoke to the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce yesterday about his proposal that Congress move to biennial budgeting. Congress would pass a two-year budget in each odd-numbered year, right after the new guys get sworn in, then let the federal government run on fiscal autopilot during the even-numbered years when everyone is election-happy.

Thune's plan, Senate Bill 3652, puts Congress and the President on a pretty tight budget timetable:
  1. The President has to submit a budget by the first Monday in February.
  2. Congress has until April 15 to complete its joint resolution on the budget.
  3. Final budget must pass by June 15.
That time frame could make it more difficult for members of Congress to read in full the budget bills they are voting on. But deadlines can focus one's attention....

The biennial budget has its merits. Congress does have a hard time concentrating during election years, and many appropriations get ad hoc extensions that make it hard for federal agencies to plan ahead. Under a two-year budget, federal offices can make basic management decisions, like hiring and procurement, with a little more certainty, and maybe savings: if the boss at the regional USDA office knows a program is funded for two years, she can order two years' worth of printer cartridges on sale now.

But the biennial budget also gives in to the GOP narrative that government can't do anything right. Conservative Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth promoted a biennial budget fourteen years ago. He said the efficiency gains would be marginal; for him and fellow conservatives, the bigger benefit of a biennial budget is reducing the amount of time Congress is in session. The less time Congress spends in town, the less government action it can take. If you take as an article of faith that government is evil, the biennial budget is great. But if you take the position that the government is us, capable of working together to solve problems, then scaling back to a half-time Congress poses problems.

Election-year pressures no longer seem confined to election years. John Thune's Senate hasn't been terribly productive in either year of the current session, with Republicans playing obstructionist politics since President Obama's inauguration. Arguably, a biennial budget just makes the obstructionists' job easier, as they only have to say no half as often.

The biennial budget seems to surrender to the problem of the constant campaign. If Congress consolidates all budget action to the odd-numbered year, the incumbents will be that much freer to take off for fundraisers sooner, facilitating even bigger-money campaigns.

The biennial budget has its merits, but it feels like a cop-out. If Congress has trouble making decisions, the proper response would seem to be to elect people better suited to making decisions, not reducing the decisions they have to make.

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