Tad DeHaven
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I don’t recall ever agreeing with the left-liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), but their new paper on the drawbacks of the federal government switching to biennial budgeting is a good read. Congressional Republicans, including House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), are the chief proponents of switching to a biennial budget cycle. By providing (qualified) support to the CBPP paper, I’m hoping to demonstrate to would-be GOP naysayers that criticism of biennial budgeting isn’t confined to one area of the ideological spectrum.

I don’t agree with everything in the paper and I don’t share some of the authors’ concerns, but here are three solid points that the paper makes:

  • In 1940, 44 states practiced biennial budgeting. Currently, only nineteen do. In addition, larger states typically have an annual budget cycle. The authors correctly ask, “if large state governments find that biennial budgeting is not the best approach given the responsibilities they shoulder, is it likely to prove appropriate for an entity with the far more extensive domestic and international responsibilities of the U.S. government?”
  • The authors call the claims made by proponents that biennial budgeting will free up more time for oversight “overstated.” Authorizing committees can conduct oversight anytime they want. The appropriation committees conduct oversight when they review agency budget requests each year. What’s the benefit of having oversight conducted by the appropriations committees every two years?  (For the record, I think the value of congressional oversight is overstated for public choice reasons, but I’ll play along for today.)
  • The authors explain what I consider to be the fatal flaw with biennial budgeting:

The desire of many lawmakers to rein in such supplemental appropriations and reassert meaningful control over all annually appropriated funds — and the practice the Obama Administration has followed of including war funding within the regular defense appropriations bill, which has improved budget transparency — would become much harder to fulfill if biennial budgeting were implemented. It is not possible for Congress effectively to plan ahead for unexpected needs in the second year of a biennium. Large supplemental appropriations to meet such needs outside of the two-year budget plan would almost certainly become a regular part of the budget process and could further erode budget controls and accountability.

(Note: A recent paper from Cato adjunct scholar Veronique de Rugy explains that supplemental appropriations are already a problem.)

As a former budget official in a state that uses biennial budgeting, I just don’t understand what congressional Republicans think they’re going to accomplish. The cynic in me thinks that at least part of the support stems from the unwillingness of most Republicans to get specific on what they’d eliminate from the federal budget. Like the Balanced Budget Amendment, I think a lot of Republicans are simply using biennial budgeting as political cover.

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Tad DeHaven

Tad DeHaven is a budget analyst at the Cato Institute. Previously he was a deputy director of the Indiana Office of Management and Budget. DeHaven also worked as a budget policy advisor to Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK).