Today’s Courier Herald Column:
At some point, reasonable people must ask themselves why do we do things this way? Thursday, again, the House and Senate passed a short term continuing resolution to fund the government until December 16th. The federal government’s fiscal year began on October 1st, but that day is nearly meaningless to Congress these days. The last time a budget was passed prior to the beginning of the fiscal year was in 1994.
At least some could say they’re making progress. Full year funding for three of twelve appropriations areas, including Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science, and Transportation/Housing and Urban Development, were included in the vote. The remaining areas continue to be debated.
Opposition to the measures came mostly from Republicans who believe that the rate of spending is not being cut fast enough. A quote released from Congressman Lynn Westmoreland makes the case for opposition:
“I made a promise to my constituents that I would cut federal spending, pay down our national debt, and get this country back on a path of fiscal responsibility. The spend now, pay later mentality Congressional Democrats and President Obama have instituted in Congress these last several years have resulted in a 40 percent increase in our national debt. Earlier this week, our national debt topped $15 trillion – that’s larger than the size of our country’s entire economy. Our failure to address this problem in any kind of real way has resulted in a downgrade in our credit rating and is leaving our children and grandchildren with crushing debt they may never be able to pay off. While I am pleased to see that House Republicans have been able to change the debate in Washington from more spending to more cuts, I believe the discretionary spending levels in this CR are still too high. When you’re dealing with a federal budget of almost $4 trillion, cutting federal spending $7 billion – or less than one fifth of one percent of the total federal budget – is just a drop in the bucket. We owe the American people more.”
For all the rhetoric surrounding the budgetary process over the past year, the actual cuts in spending are now measured in increments of less than one percent. That’s hardly a meat axe that is being taken to the appropriations rolls. While most still believe that entitlements must bear the burden of real reforms to balance the budget, the portion of the electorate that has been demanding spending cuts is not likely going to be placated by cuts of .2 percent. At some point, those railing against the wasteful spending of Washington are going to have to be asked why it has not been identified and singled out for elimination – and who should be held accountable.
As for the process itself, that too has a couple of potential remedies working its way through Congress. One is by Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson who would like to move to a 2-year budget cycle. Setting the budget for 2 year periods would allow Congress to hopefully spend less total time on appropriations, and leave less need for constant continuing resolutions to fund the government in place of a fixed budget. The goal would be to spend one year on appropriations, and then have the off year to focus on scrutinizing federal programs. The current system is monopolized by figuring out who gets money, while Isakson’s reforms would force the process to inspect how appropriated money is being spent and its effectiveness. It’s a worthy proposal.
Another proposal that deserves more attention is the resurrection of the balanced budget amendment, which will be voted on soon in the U.S. House. The measure failed in 1995 by one vote after being a central plank in the contract with America. With less public awareness and demand for the measure this time around, the vote is unfortunately symbolic and a marker for upcoming elections.
If passed and ratified by the states, the amendment would have the effective hard cap on spending called for in the Republicans “Cut, Cap, and Balance” plan. The fixed cap would probably also allow more Republicans to go along with revenue increases to decrease the deficit, as the budget process would finally be restored to one where spending must match revenue. Restoring the link that a dollar of additional spending means a dollar of additional taxes is vital to getting a budget system based on priorities and tradeoffs.
For now, the system will continue as-is. The CR will likely be replaced with another in December, and the Super Committee may well decide to punt mid-holiday season while no one is paying much attention and decide that how much money Congress taxes and spends is now best left to the Presidential campaign. It is, after all, at the ballot box where the American people get to answer if the status quo is the best way to get things done.