An Appeal for Honest Budgeting

by Andrew Stiles

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, is known for his fiery rants against Washington’s wayward spending habits and gimmick-riddled budget process. Today, as mentioned on the Corner earlier, he will introduce legislation that seeks to restore sanity to the former by doing away with the latter.

Known as the Honest Budget Act, the bill targets the budget tricks and abstract accounting that politicians of both parties have relied on for years to claim “savings” that in reality never end up saving taxpayers a single dime. (For example, President Obama’s latest deficit plan claims $1.1 trillion in “savings” — about one third of the entire package — on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this is money that never would have been spent in the first place due to our plans to scale down troop levels in both campaigns.) The Honest Budget Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R., Maine), would:

— Require the Senate to actually pass a budget resolution before authorizing appropriations. It has been almost 900 days since the Democratic Senate last approved a legitimate budget resolution. As a result, the government has to be funded through omnibus appropriations bills, which as you might expect, don’t lend themselves to fiscal prudence. Under existing congressional rules, any senator can raise a point of order objecting to the consideration of appropriations bills in the absence of a budget resolution. However, the objection can be overridden by a simple majority vote. This bill would give such objections more weight by requiring a 60-vote threshold to overturn.

— Prevent “emergency” spending on non-emergencies. Federal spending that Congress designates as an “emergency” is typically exempt from the various rules and constraints intended to enforce budgetary discipline. But it’s not just the September 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and other real emergencies that get this treatment. Congress too often abuses this rule by awarding “emergency” funding for programs of questionable urgency. A 2008 appropriations bill, for example, awarded $210 million in “emergency” funding to conduct the 2010 Census, an undertaking that is required by the Constitution. This bill would require all “emergency” spending to be offered in a separate amendment, and would allow members to object to the measure with a point of order requiring a three-fifths vote to overturn.

— Eliminate “ChiMPs.” Changes in mandatory spending programs (ChiMPs) are commonly employed to calculate phony “savings.” #more#This occurs when, for instance, the same $10 billion in planned spending is delayed repeatedly over a period of ten years, and is scored as total “savings” of $100 billion, when in fact only the initial $10 billion has actually been saved. The Crime Victims Fund obligation limitation is a classic example. The fund collects fines and penalties that are then paid out to crime victims, under a restriction stating that the fund can pay out no more than it takes in. State laws, however, typically limit these payouts to an amount less than the total balance of the fund. In fiscal year 2011, the fund took in $5.6 billion but paid out just $705 million, resulting in scored “savings” of $4.9 billion that was then used to fund new spending elsewhere in the budget. Appropriations for fiscal year 2011 included nearly $17 billion in phony ChiMP savings. The Honest Budget Act would modify existing rules to allow members to raise strong points of order against all ChiMPs included in appropriations bills.

— Do away with phony “rescissions.” It should come as no surprise that sometimes Congress allocates more money for a project or program than is actually needed. When this happens, the leftover funds are “rescinded,” but that doesn’t always translate into savings for the taxpayer. In fact, the money “saved” from the rescinded funds can be used to offset spending increases elsewhere in the budget. Congress will sometimes deliberately include rescinded funds — money that would not have been spent regardless — and score them as “savings” into order to “pay for” additional spending measures. This bill would create a new scoring rule that prevents congressional budget committees from counting rescinded funds that do not actually produce legitimate cash savings.

— Make President Obama’s “pay freeze” for federal workers a real pay freeze. In November 2010, in an effort to highlight his professed support for “broad sacrifice” on deficit reduction, the president announced a two-year federal pay freeze. Congresses heeded this call by passing legislation to temporarily suspend cost-of-living pay increases for federal workers. However, this hasn’t prevented more than 70 percent federal workers from receiving “within-grade” pay increases, at a rate of two to three percent of total salary. As a result, the president’s so-called “freeze” is costing taxpayers approximately $1 billion per year. This bill would eliminate these “within-grade” increases.

— Reign in the abuse of advance appropriations and timing shifts. Appropriations bills will sometimes, for various reasons, allocate funding several years in advance. This is typically the case with respect to funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, due to the long period of time required to develop and produce original programming. But appropriations spending is scored according to the year that funding first becomes available, allowing Congress to defer increased spending to future years in order to make room in the budget for more spending in the current year. The Senate placed restrictions on advanced appropriations in 2000, but those rules recently expired and thus do not apply to fiscal year 2012 funding. The Honest Budget Act would simply reinstate these rules.

Similarly, Congress will sometimes shift certain spending or revenue measure in or out of the standard ten-year budget window in order to obtain a more favorable score. This gimmick was employed most notoriously in the president’s health-care legislation to make it appear as thought the new law would reduce the deficit over ten years, when in reality it will cause deficits to soar when implemented in full. This bill would establish new rules that prohibit the use of such time shifts.

GOP aides with the Senate Budget Committee tell National Review Online that the gimmicks targeted in the Honest Budget Act have been used to add more than $350 billion to the deficit since 2005. The legislation was designed to be a strong stand-alone bill, but could easily be broken up into individual measures and offered as amendments to other bills. Either way, they hope to garner a number of Democratic cosponsors and pressure those opposed to defend these dishonest gimmicks to the American public. Of course, the bill could very well be unpopular with Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where much of this budgetary chicanery takes place. Still, given the public’s widespread frustration with Washington’s profligate ways, lawmaker should be hard-pressed to oppose these measures.

“No more gimmicks, tricks, or empty promises. Americans deserve honesty, transparency, and accountability,” Sessions and Snowe said in a statement. “The Senate must adopt this overdue measure and we are confident it can receive bipartisan support. That is what we will fight to achieve. It is time for Congress to rebuild the trust it has so steadily eroded.”

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