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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Federal Budget Process Reform in the 111thCongress: A Brief Overview

Robert Keith
Specialist in American National Government

Procedural change is a recurrent feature of federal budgeting, although the scope and impact of changes may vary from year to year. In order to advance their budgetary, economic, or political objectives, both Congress and the President regularly propose and make changes to the federal budget process. This report briefly discusses the context in which federal budget process changes are made and identifies selected reform proposals by major category. The identification of reform proposals in this report is not intended to be comprehensive. 

A variety of sources give rise to the interest in budget process reform, including Congress, the President, State and local government officials, and special commissions, among others. Congress initiated a thorough overhaul of its internal budget process and ameliorated ongoing conflicts with President Richard Nixon over the withholding of appropriated funds through enactment of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. President Bill Clinton, like many Presidents before him, requested line-item veto authority, which Congress granted in 1996 in the Line Item Veto Act (but was invalidated by court action in 1998). State and local government officials were instrumental in securing passage of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995. Finally, special commissions, such as the President's National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the "9/11 Commission"), have recommended changes in budget structure and procedure that have been adopted. 

The federal budget process is rooted in constitutional mandates, statutory requirements, House and Senate rules and practices, and administrative directives. Thus, there are several avenues through which budget process changes can occur. Either chamber may focus on changes in its rules, thereby minimizing the time needed to effect the change and the scale of potential conflict needed to be resolved, but at the same time possibly minimizing the impact of the changes. Broader and potentially more consequential changes, involving statutes or constitutional amendments, may entail a larger set of participants in the decision-making (i.e., the other chamber, the President, state legislatures), likely escalating the effort required to reach agreement and lengthening the time period before the changes take effect. 

Legislative changes in the budget process may take the form of freestanding bills or joint resolutions (e.g., the Line Item Veto Act), or may be incorporated into other budgetary legislation, such as acts raising the debt limit (e.g., the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, also referred to as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act), implementing reconciliation instructions (e.g., the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990), or providing annual appropriations (e.g., revisions in the Senate's cap on discretionary appropriations). Budget process changes also may be included in the annual budget resolution (a concurrent resolution), or in simple House or Senate resolutions. 

This report will be updated as developments warrant.

Date of Report: December 22, 2009
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: R40113
Price: $29.95

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