Time for Congress to Stop Binging and Start Budgeting
As this year draws to a close, we are once again approaching a federal budget deadline that will likely be postponed. Over the last 40 years, since the modern budget process was established, Congress has enacted 175 temporary spending bills, formally known as continuing resolutions, to avoid doing its job. It’s time to change the way Congress does business.
The November election results showed that hardworking taxpayers are eager for real change. With a new president taking office on Jan. 20, Congress has an opportunity and responsibility to get back to work.
The first step must be fixing America’s broken budget process to provide our nation with a responsible fiscal blueprint and help guide our spending decisions now and into the future. As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, this will be one of my top priorities in the new congress.
We are a nation on course for a fiscal disaster, because, when it comes to spending money, Congress is like a binge eater. We don’t want to start our diet until right after the next dessert. That attitude has led to a mammoth, oversized national debt that, left unchecked, will crush the prosperity of future generations.
We must start spending within our means and establishing healthy fiscal habits. Unfortunately, America’s broken budget process makes it easy for Congress to spend without ever checking its fiscal waistline.
Currently, only 30 percent of the national budget is annually distributed to federal agencies and programs by Congress. This money funds the activities that most people would associate with good government, such as national defense, education and infrastructure spending.
We must pass spending bills to fund these government activities every year, forcing a public debate about where taxpayer dollars should be spent.
In fact, this is the portion of the budget that attracts the most congressional scrutiny and debate, and there are limits in place that make it very difficult to spend more than what’s allotted. But it is not growing rapidly and is not the cause of our unsustainable fiscal course.
The real culprit is the other 70 percent of the federal budget that is spent automatically, without regular congressional action or review.
In just 15 years, it will consume all government revenues, as debt interest payments and entitlements continue to grow rapidly. There are no effective limits to the amount that can be spent on this side of the budget, at least until this spending drives America into bankruptcy.
This is how the budget process makes it easy to spend money. There is regular review and strict limits on the small and shrinking portion of the budget. But the much larger automatic spending programs are not regularly reviewed and can grow almost without limit.
To make matters worse, the historically low interest rates that America has relied on to pay its debt are poised to surge, according to the latest signals from the Federal Reserve. When these rates rise, we can expect to spend more every year on interest payments for these loans than we spend on national defense.
The Senate Budget Committee has been working on reforms that would fix America’s broken budget process. Many of these reforms strengthen the congressional budget, the only existing tool we have that forces Congress to examine all spending and revenues, including automatic spending, over a 10-year period. This budgeting process should be easier to adopt and harder to ignore.
Congress can start by reducing the needless political hurdles to passing a budget and making it harder to ignore overspending once Congress agreed to it.
The congressional budget is easily ignored in the Senate because it takes the same number of votes in the Senate to waive a budget violation that it does to overcome filibuster and pass a bill. The fiscal year 2016 budget was tossed aside in less than five weeks. Our rules should make it harder to pass a bill that busts the congressional budget by requiring more votes to waive the violation.
We must also create new rules to ensure Congress passes its annual spending measures on time. The current process has been completed on time only four times in the last 40 years, and the last time it was completed on time was in 1998.
Obviously this year is no exception to the rule. Congress should set aside specific floor time only for consideration of spending bills and enact legislation establishing a two-year spending cycle so that it has more time to review spending and complete its work. It should also enact Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-Ohio) legislation that would end government shutdowns to prevent our annual, end-of-year spending crises.
These reforms and others would begin to create healthy fiscal habits that would force Congress to recognize and begin to address the daunting fiscal challenges that face our country.
I will continue to tirelessly work to get as many of these budget reforms as possible enacted in the new Congress. It’s time to take seriously the crisis that is threatening the future financial solvency of this country.
The American people have spoken, and we owe it to them to put politics aside and get back to work.