Each passing year brings new evidence of the need to repair the process for managing the $4 trillion U.S. budget. Congressional budget resolutions and spending bills narrowly pass, often very late, with lukewarm promises of hammering out priorities in the following budgeting cycle. It has been more than 20 years since all appropriations bills were passed prior to the beginning of the fiscal year. With so many missed deadlines and insufficient attention paid to longer-term budget priorities and oversight, it is obvious the process needs to change.

Amidst this backdrop, the Consensus Building Institute and its partner, the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, convened an unusual coalition of budget experts and advocates to brainstorm new ideas for turning around what is often a dysfunctional budget process. The group was comprised of members with divergent perspectives and ideologies, and interests that are deeply affected by the outcomes of the federal budget process each year. After meeting for two years, the group – which named its project the Building a Better Budget Process (B3P) – presented a set of realistic, politically feasible proposals for improving the budgeting process to Congress:

  1. Synchronize the budget cycle with the electoral cycle: Congress and the President should negotiate a Budget Action Plan at the beginning of a new Congress that would be passed into law, defining key fiscal decisions – setting discretionary funding levels and adjusting the debt limit, for example – for a two-year period.
  2. Raise the visibility of fiscal information: A Fiscal State of the Nation report should be produced every four years, timed for release at a key point in the national election cycle, that clearly and succinctly lays out the condition of the country’s finances.
  3. Review the performance of federal program portfolios: Congress, through the Government Accountability Office, should review the performance of federal programs that require long-term or inter-generational commitments (such as retirement security, health coverage, education or national security).
  4. Strengthen Budget Committees: To support more timely action on budget decisions, Congress should strengthen the effectiveness of Budget Committees by revising the membership rules and assigning the committees responsibility to oversee new activities proposed above.
  5. Appropriately fund federal budgeting institutions: To ensure that the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation can continue to provide high-quality and independent information, Congress should fund them with sufficient resources.

These proposals were the outcome of a carefully orchestrated process, facilitated by CBI in partnership with Convergence, a nonprofit whose mission is to convene leaders in innovative contexts to jointly address tough policy issues. 

The CBI-Convergence Process

Background: The Urgent Need for Change

The current budget process faults have many real-world costs. Failure to enact timely appropriations bills generates repercussions that are felt in federal agencies, private and nonprofit sectors, state and local governments, and Americans’ everyday lives. For example, it is difficult for government agencies, businesses, research institutions, hospitals, and state and local governments to make long-term plans if their programs or services depend on unreliable federal funding. Companies providing critical services to the federal government, like defense and information technology contractors, may put projects on hold, lay off workers, or cancel equipment purchases, given uncertainties in the budget process. Providers to the poor, elderly, and disabled may have to curtail services. State governments relying on federal matching funds for crucial services such as health care, education, or transportation may be forced to scale back those programs.

The Approach: A Dialogue Among Unlikely Collaborators

The hypothesis was this: much work has already been done to identify ideas and designs for process reform, often by budget “wonks.” But for reform ideas to become reality, a wide range of stakeholders affected by the federal budget need to come together, explore options, and publicly rally behind a set of proposals. If such a respected group were to put forth a single proposal, it would be much easier for members of Congress from both parties to take on structural reform of the budget process.

Thus, after CBI and Convergence conducted more than 100 assessment interviews, they brought 24 individuals into a dialogue. B3P participants joined in 14 facilitated meetings between November 2016 and February 2018 that were designed to build trust; explore and air concerns, hopes, and priorities; return to the Constitution to determine roles and responsibilities for the Executive and Legislative branches; and finally, build a framework for budgeting that all could support.

Participants quickly realized that they shared many of the same frustrations with the budget process, regardless of their constituencies or political leanings. In their monthly dialogues, B3P stakeholders did not debate policy issues such as whether federal spending should be curtailed or the deficit reduced. They focused instead on a framework for designing a federal budget to help Congress balance competing political and programmatic interests, as well as current and future needs.

To aid their deliberations, B3P participants were informed by political scientists, practitioners, and professors studying government and the budget process. Through engagement with these guest speakers, participants examined the history of budget process reform, challenges of budgeting for different types of spending, and political incentives behind decision-making by members of Congress.

To support the development of their reform proposals, the B3P group developed principles for what an improved process should encompass that guided their work. Over the course of their discussions, B3P dialogue participants asked: Are there effective incentives and consequences that can be integrated into a new budget process? What parts of the process currently work and how can they be strengthened? Is there a way to shock the system, to break poor budgeting habits and change current norms? As the group examined these questions, several key themes emerged. Finally, the above-outlined set of proposals began to take shape and were outlined in a summary report.

Next Steps: Efforts to Influence Congress

The B3P Project announced its proposals at the Budget Reform Summit on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on February 26. More than 300 people attended the event, including Senators Perdue (GA) and Whitehouse (RI). Both senators are key players in the new Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform (JSC), created as part of the Budget Act in early 2018. The new JSC is considering many possible reforms to the budget process. The Convergence B3P proposals have taken center stage in this discussion. In May, two stakeholders – Matt Owens of the American Association of Universities and Emily Holubowich of the Coalition for Health Funding – testified before the JSC about the proposals and how the project reached consensus. While process reforms alone cannot make Congress act on issues in a timely and bipartisan manner, B3P stakeholders believe these proposals will, if adopted, significantly improve the odds that the federal budget process will function more effectively.

Sam Berger, Senior Adviser for the Center for American Progress, and a member of the B3P group, believes the proposals “suggest a path for real bipartisan improvements to the budget process – by seeking to reduce debt ceiling brinkmanship, reiterating the importance of the nonpartisan expertise provided by the Congressional Budget Office, and focusing on budgetary results over political posturing." Matt Owens said: “I hope our work marks a turning point from discussions to actions that will improve the federal budget process. I hope other local, state, and national organizations that have been frustrated by decades of a dysfunctional federal budget process, stop-gap funding bills, and government shutdowns will read the report and call on Congress to take action.”