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«Congressional Research Service 7-5700 R41764 Biennial Budgeting: Options, Issues, and Previous Congressional Action Summary Difficulties ...»

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Biennial Budgeting: Options, Issues, and

Previous Congressional Action

Jessica Tollestrup

Analyst on Congress and the Legislative Process

February 2, 2015

Congressional Research Service




Biennial Budgeting: Options, Issues, and Previous Congressional Action


Difficulties in the timely enactment of budgetary legislation have long fueled interest in ways to

structure the congressional budget process to ease time constraints. One long-discussed reform

proposal would attempt to remedy this by changing the budget cycle from one to two years.

Biennial budgeting is a concept that may involve several variations, including two-year budget resolutions, two-year appropriations, and other changes in the timing of legislation related to revenue or spending. Biennial budgeting proposals may focus on enacting budgetary legislation for either a two-year period or two succeeding one-year periods in a single measure. The overall time frame for a biennial budget cycle has previously taken either a “stretch” approach, where the current budget process timetable is extended to two full years, or a split sessions approach, where all budgetary activity is expected to occur in a single year or session of Congress (typically the first), while the other year or session is reserved primarily for oversight and the consideration of non-budgetary matters.

Proponents of biennial budgeting have generally advanced three arguments—that a two-year budget cycle would (1) reduce congressional workload by eliminating the need for annual review of routine matters; (2) reserve the second session of each Congress for improved congressional oversight and program review; and (3) allow better long-term planning by the agencies that spend federal funds at the federal, state, or local level.

Critics of biennial budgeting have countered by asserting that the projected benefits might not be realized. Projecting revenues and expenditures for a two-year cycle requires forecasting as much as 30 months in advance. This might result in less accurate forecasts and could require Congress to choose either allowing the President greater latitude to make budgetary adjustments in the offyears or engaging in mid-cycle corrections, which might effectively undercut any workload reduction or intended improvements in planning. Opponents have also pointed out that oversight through annual review of appropriations would be lost under a biennial budget, with no guarantee that a separate oversight session would be effective. Furthermore, they have argued that reducing the number of times that Congress considers budget matters may only raise the stakes, which heightens the possibility for conflict and increased delay.

Biennial budgeting has a long history at the state level. The trend since World War II has been for states to convert to an annual budget cycle; however, the most recent data available, from 2011, indicate that 19 states operate with a two-year cycle, and some states operate with mixed cycles that put significant portions of their budgets on a two-year cycle.

Congressional action related to biennial budgeting first occurred in 1982 with hearings on S.

2008, the Budget and Oversight Reform Act of 1981 (97th Congress). Additional action occurred with respect to biennial budgeting during the 100th, 101st, 102nd, 103rd, 104th, 105th, 106th, 107th, 108th, and 109th Congresses. None of these proposals were ultimately enacted. In the 112th Congress, the House Rules Committee Subcommittee on the Legislative and Budget Process held a hearing on H.R. 114, the Biennial Budgeting and Appropriations Act of 2011, but took no further action. In the 113th Congress, the Senate adopted an amendment (S.Amdt. 136) to the FY2014 budget resolution (S.Con.Res. 8), that created a deficit neutral reserve fund for the establishment of a biennial budget and appropriations process. Additionally, the House Budget Committee reported H.R. 1869, the Biennial Budgeting and Enhanced Oversight Act of 2014, with an amendment (H.Rept. 113-382). No further action was taken.

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Contents Introduction

Types of Biennial Budgeting

Two-Year Budget Resolutions

Two-Year Appropriations

Other Types of Legislation

General Arguments Favoring and Opposing Biennial Budgeting

Arguments Made by Proponents of Biennial Budgeting

Arguments Made by Opponents of Biennial Budgeting

Biennial Budgeting in the States

Congressional Action on Biennial Budgeting

97th Congress

100th Congress

101st Congress

102nd Congress

103rd Congress

105th Congress

106th Congress

107th Congress

108th Congress

109th Congress

112th Congress

113th Congress

Tables Table 1. Last Regular Appropriations Act Date of Enactment, FY1996-FY2013

Table 2. States with Annual and Biennial Budgets (2011)

Contacts Author Contact Information


Congressional Research Service Biennial Budgeting: Options, Issues, and Previous Congressional Action Introduction One of the main congressional concerns related to the budget process in recent years has been the amount of time it requires. The current process, which provides for consideration of various budget questions in the form of a concurrent resolution on the budget, reconciliation measures, tax measures, public debt measures, authorizations, regular appropriations, continuing appropriations, and supplemental appropriations, has been faulted as repetitive and inefficient.1 This, in turn, has fueled interest in the idea that the congressional budget process could be better structured to promote a more efficient use of Congress’s limited time.

Despite the perceived or actual permanence of much federal spending, the process of formulating, enacting, and executing the federal budget has remained characteristically annual. This annual budget cycle poses both an opportunity and a dilemma for Congress—although the annual review of spending legislation can afford Congress the opportunity to maximize its influence concerning the funding and operation of various programs and policies, many Members have expressed concern with the high percentage of the congressional workload that is devoted to budgetary matters.2 The annual completion of the budget cycle is dependent on the timely enactment of budgetary legislation. Consideration of certain types of budgetary legislation is often closely linked to the consideration of other types, so that delays in consideration of one measure may have an impact on the timing of all subsequent budgetary legislation. In recent years, final action occurred on appropriations measures an average of about 104 days after the start of the fiscal year on October 1 (see Table 1). The result has been frustration with the budget process and a desire to reduce the number or frequency of budget measures that need to be considered.3 The budget process has also been criticized as being unnecessarily repetitive, with some questions being debated in various forms several times each year. Defense policy, for example, may be debated in terms of its priority within the overall budget in the context of the budget resolution, in terms of policy in an authorization measure, and in terms of funding levels on an appropriations bill, only to have it all repeated the following year. Rather than promote efficient consideration, critics contend, this repetition has contributed to the complexity of the budget process, as well as to inefficiency and delay.4 For general information on the congressional budget process, see CRS Report 98-721, Introduction to the Federal Budget Process, coordinated by Bill Heniff Jr.

This workload is illustrated by the number of budget related roll call votes, as shown in Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, and Michael J. Malbin, Vital Statistics on Congress: 2008 (Washington: Brookings Institute Press, 2008), chap. 7, p. 141.

For more on this perspective, see, Rudolph G. Penner and Alan J. Abramson, Broken Purse Strings (Washington: The Urban Institute Press, 1988), p. 110.

For more on this perspective, see Prepared Statement of Senator Pete Domenici, in U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, Subcommittee on Financial Management and Accountability, S. 1434—Biennial Budgeting Act of 1995, hearing, 104th Cong., 2nd sess., July 24, 1996, S.Hrg. 104-638 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1996).

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Source: Compiled by CRS with data from the Legislative Information System of the U.S. Congress.

A number of possible reforms, such as automatic continuing resolutions,5 joint budget resolutions,6 or merging the authorization and appropriations processes, have been advanced, at least in part, in the hope that they could make the budget process operate in a more timely fashion. For example, advocates of an automatic continuing resolution have argued that it could reduce deadline pressures in the appropriations process;7 those in favor of a joint budget resolution suggest that it would promote early agreement on budget priorities between Congress For further information on automatic continuing resolutions, see CRS Report R41948, Automatic Continuing Resolutions: Background and Overview of Recent Proposals, by Jessica Tollestrup.

For further information joint budget resolutions, see CRS Report R42383, Budget Process Reform: Proposals and Legislative Actions in 2012, by Megan S. Lynch.

For more on this perspective, see the testimony of Martha Phillips, Concord Coalition, U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on the Budget and Committee on Governmental Affairs, To Consider Budget Process Reform, joint hearing, 106th Cong., 1st sess., S.Hrg. 106-24 (Washington, DC: GPO 1999), p. 63; Brian M. Riedl, “Backgrounder: 10 Elements of Comprehensive Budget Process Reform,” The Heritage Foundation, no. 1943, June 15, 2006, p. 7.

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and the President;8 and some argue that a merged authorization-appropriations process could reduce the volume of legislation that needs to be considered in any given session of Congress.9 As a result, some see these and other proposed reforms as offering the potential to make the timely enactment of budget legislation more likely.

Another possible approach to addressing this concern is to change the budget cycle from one year to two years, also known as “biennial budgeting.” Because budgeting for the federal government encompasses a number of types of measures, biennial budgeting can have several meanings.

Biennial budgeting can involve two-year budget resolutions, two-year appropriations, and other changes in the timing of legislation related to revenue or spending. Typically, biennial budgeting proposals have included at least the first two aspects. Biennial budgeting proposals may focus on enacting budgetary legislation for either a two-year period or two succeeding one-year periods in a single measure. In addition, biennial budget proposals typically require that executive branch planning and performance reviews be revised so that they are based on a two-year cycle.

This report provides background on options, issues, and previous congressional action related to biennial budgeting.

Types of Biennial Budgeting Biennial budgeting as a concept has many permutations, and may include a requirement for twoyear budget resolutions, two-year appropriations, and also affect the timing of consideration for other types of legislation related to revenue and spending.

The overall time frame contained in previous biennial budgeting proposals has typically taken either a “stretch” or “split sessions” approach. The stretch approach would extend the current budget process timetable to two full years.10 Advocates of this approach often argue that it allows for less hurried and more thorough consideration of budgetary legislation. In contrast, the split sessions approach is based on the expectation that all budgetary legislation would be considered in a single year or session of Congress (typically the first), while consideration of non-budgetary matters would occur primarily in the other year or session.11 Advocates of this approach often assert that limiting the time frame during which Congress may consider budgetary matters to every other year or session will encourage greater levels of agency and program oversight during the other.12 Biennial budgeting proposals have also varied with respect to the time frame for appropriations.

“Biennial appropriations” may refer to all appropriations being enacted for a two-year period, all appropriations being enacted for two succeeding one-year periods in a single measure. In addition, the consideration of the 12 regular appropriations bills might occur in stages, so that For more on this perspective, see Penner and Abramson, Broken Purse Strings, pp. 113-114.

See, for example, Testimony of Tim Roemer, in U.S. Congress, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Congressional Oversight of Intelligence Activities, hearing, 110th Cong., 1st sess., November 13, 2007, S.Hrg. 110-794 (Washington, DC: GPO, 2007).

See, for example, S. 211 and H.R. 114 (112th Cong.).

See, for example, S. 286 and H.R. 22 (100th Cong.).

For a more extensive discussion of the differences between these approaches, see U.S. Congressional Budget Office, Biennial Budgeting, February 1988, pp. 1-2.

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some are enacted during the first year of the biennium and the others are enacted during the second year of the biennium.

Because of the variety of approaches discussed above, biennial budgeting may have different meanings for different people. This section provides an overview of the options and selected issues related to two-year budget resolutions, two-year appropriations acts, and other possible changes in the timing of other types of legislation that might be associated with biennial budgeting. It is important to note, however, that this section does not discuss all possible outcomes and there is likely to be variance in what would occur if biennial budgeting were adopted, depending on the context and framework that was implemented. Whether these implications are viewed positively or negatively depends on the observer’s assessment of the probable consequences of switching to a biennial budget, as well as the normative value placed on those consequences.

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