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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Biennial Budgeting: Options, Issues, and Previous Congressional Action

Jessica Tollestrup
Analyst on Congress and the Legislative Process

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, as well as other changes in the timing of legislation related to revenue or spending. Typically, biennial budgeting proposals include at least the first two aspects. Biennial budgeting proposals may focus on enacting budgetary legislation for two-year periods or for two one-year periods. 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 consideration of nonbudgetary matters is expected to occur primarily in the other year or session.

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 (97
th 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. No further congressional action has occurred as of the date of this report.

Date of Report: March 28, 2013
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: R41764
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