The Biennial Budgeting and Appropriations Act of 2011

Testimony before the House Committee on Rules

SOURCE: Center for American Progress

CAP Senior Fellow Scott Lilly testifies before the House Committee on Rules. Read this testimony (CAP Action)

There are some of us on both sides of the biennial budgeting issue who feel that this is exactly what Yogi Berra meant when he said, “Deja vu all over again.” It seems that this committee has been having hearings on this issue since I was a young Hill staffer and Abraham Lincoln was president. Twelve years ago I worked on testimony for my former boss, David Obey, for a hearing on a very similar bill introduced by the gentleman from California who chaired this committee then as he does today.

Obey argued that state governments were turning away from biennial budgets because the long time horizon required in a biennial budget led to faulty decisions about funding levels leading to excessive appropriations in some instances and loss of needed services in others. He pointed out that only four states used annual budgets at the end of World War II but that number had grown to 29 by 2000. Today it has grown to 31.

The move to biannual budgeting

The biggest change that has taken place in the time frame for budgeting has been at the federal level. In the decade prior to the 2000 hearing, Congress had been fairly successful in sticking with annual budgets. During that entire decade less than $100 billion was provided in spending outside the regular appropriation bills. More than half of that was funding for the First Gulf War, and that money was repaid to the Treasury through contributions from other countries. But even counting the money that was repaid as supplemental spending, average annual discretionary spending outside of regular appropriation measures was less than $10 billion per year, or about 2 percent of total discretionary.

Since the 2000 hearings on biennial budgeting, we have shifted dramatically away from annual budgets—but toward biannual or one might even argue bimonthly budgeting. In the decade following those hearings, this committee reported 29 resolutions waiving budget act points of order on supplemental appropriations totaling more than $1 trillion. On average, supplementals have accounted for about $100 billion a year in spending above the amount permitted by budget resolutions of that period or a little more than 10 percent of discretionary.

That has had a profound effect on our government. We in effect have not had a budget process. We agree to not spend above a certain level until we decide to spend more.

CAP Senior Fellow Scott Lilly testifies before the House Committee on Rules. Read this testimony (CAP Action)

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who writes and researches in a wide range of areas including governance, federal budgeting, national security, and the economy.