Background and Challenge

Every year, Congress is required to pass a federal budget, to allocate resources for the federal government’s agencies and programs. But passage of the annual $4 trillion U.S. federal budget has been characterized by partisan fights, missed deadlines, and inefficient—if not failed—processes, not to mention a spiraling national debt. These problems have deep roots. The U.S. Constitution does not, for instance, specify the scope, timing, or role of the Executive in fiscal matters. Over time, acts have been passed to modify the degree of control over budgetary concern held by Congress and the President, usually driven by the need for oversight (the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act) or separation of power (the Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974). Since the 1990s, Congress has regularly failed to complete the budget and appropriations work on time. This results in high uncertainty for federal agency planning and spending, along with budget and even cash flow nightmares for many institutions and organizations that rely on federal spending to feed the poor, provide medical care, and support so many other functions. It can involve partisan warfare that sometimes threatens the U.S. economy. Consider the numerous difficulties that the U.S. faces due to the failings of the current process: something needs to change. Making that change happen, however, requires work across daunting political polarization.

Our Approach

Working with the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution on the Building a Better Budget Process Project (B3P), CBI convened a broad-based group of stakeholders with divergent and bipartisan viewpoints, including conservative and progressive think tanks; budget watchdogs; and associations representing the military, businesses, higher education, health care, human services, children and the elderly, and transportation. Between November 2016 and February 2018, the B3P held 14 facilitated meetings with the intention of airing concerns, building trust, and developing a budgeting framework that was workable for all. 

After initial surprise at the diversity of stakeholders represented, the group got to work. Monthly dialogues were structured to keep B3P stakeholders from debates around policy issues so that they might focus on the preparation of a budget framework by which Congress could balance competing political interests, current needs, and future needs. Participants created a set of underlying principles for a better budget process, and they articulated common themes to guide their proposals, demonstrating the shared nature of the issue at hand and reinforcing a collective commitment to improving the existing process regardless of widely divergent views on the role of the federal government, federal spending, and federal debt.


The B3P group built consensus around five proposals for improving the federal budget process: synchronizing the budget and electoral cycles; negotiating a Budget Action Plan between Congress and the Executive; raising the visibility of fiscal information through the publication of a Fiscal State of the Nation report; periodically reviewing the performance of the portfolios of longer-term federal programs; and strengthening existing Budget Committees. 

Alison Acosta Winters of Americans for Prosperity, a process participant, said: “The proposals we came up with were substantive, and I feel great that we accomplished that, given the really diverse members who participated in this.” The B3P project continues to build off the relationships forged with stakeholders, working with participants both individually and collectively to publicize their recommendations. Thus far, these proposals have been brought to public events like the Budget Reform Summit on Capitol Hill in February 2018 and taken up by the 2020-22 Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. These are just some examples of how the B3P project has demonstrated that political divisions need not undermine work toward shared commitments.