Fifty Years of Failed Congressional Budget Reforms

Over the last 50 years Congress adopted multiple budget reform plans, and in short order set about undoing those same plans. The evidence points to one conclusion, the only successful plan will be one that imposes an external discipline on how Congress handles spending and debt – a constitutional amendment.

In June of 1974 Congress adopted the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act (H.R. 7130). The vote for passage was 401 to 6 in the House and 75 to 0 in the Senate.

Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives cheered what they had done.

  • “The budget control act will allow us to restrain the level of Federal spending in light of receipts and at the same time exercise greater control in establishing budget priorities.” Rep. Pat Schroder (D-CO)
  •  “At last we have a means of looking in a comprehensive way at all the needs we seek to meet, balancing the competing demands for limited resources and gauging them against total spending levels.” Sen. Spark Matsunaga (D HI)
  •  “The bill will set up procedures that will tend to force us to establish our own spending priorities, to control our overspending more sensibly, and to strike a better balance between our income and our expenses.” Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-MN)
  • “It will give Congress the means to deal in an orderly and comprehensive fashion with our most important decisions-those of budget policy and national priorities,” Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME).

Good intentions, that slowly evaporated. When doing what they had promised became too difficult Congress either amended the law; or (get this) voted to “deem” compliance even when that was not the case; or simply stopped doing what the law called for.

For the last two years the Senate Budget Committee, for example, has simply not bothered to report a budget resolution, as required in the law. The Committee did ask for and receive an increase in its own budget. It must be more expensive to not do what the law requires.

As the reforms of the 1974 budget act faded, new candidates stepped on to the stage:

  • The Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act (H.J. Res 372) also known as the Gramm-Rudman-Holling Act (1985)
  • The Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Reaffirmation Act of 1987 (H.J. Res 324)
  • The Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 (H.R. 5835)
  • The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (H.R. 2264)
  • The Budget Enforcement Act of 1997 (H.R. 2015)
  • The Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010 (H.J. Res. 45)
  • The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 (H.R. 3746)

All of these had variations on ways to control spending and debt – limits on the deficit, caps on spending; requirements that spending increases or tax cuts in one place are offset by cuts in other places; across the board cuts (called sequesters) if Congress failed to stay within the spending caps.

And, for every control included in new laws or Congressional rules, members of Congress found creative ways to get around them. Exempt large parts of the budget from any controls. Declare some spending as “emergency spending,” not covered by the controls. Pass one bill with spending that would trigger a control and then pass a second bill exempting that first bill from those controls. Simply waive a rule that would require a cut. Getting close to a number that will trigger extra spending cuts? Change that number.

There is a cottage industry in Washington – in government and out – that thrives on all this; the ins and outs of past budget procedures and new ideas to enforce the same old stuff. If you want to torture yourself, the Congressional Research Service produces detailed reports on the history of past reforms, along with descriptions of the many escape hatches through which Congress crawled. Find these reports with a simple Google search.

There is an easier way to evaluate the 50-year history of Congressional budget reform. In 1974 members of Congress worried about the national debt “fast approaching $500 billion.” It is now $34.8 trillion.

When Congress passed the 1974 Congressional Budget act, Senator Muskie (D-ME) said “this legislation is the best kind of reform measure–self-reform.” (Congressional Record, 6/21/1974, p. 20468) That may be true elsewhere, but not for Congress.

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