Politics & Policy

Budget Matters

How to end fiscal malpractice in Washington.

In recent years Congress has been spending money in such a financially reckless matter that our federal budget-making process now resembles that of a debt-ridden and corrupt third-world government. It took nearly 200 years for Congress to reach a $1 trillion budget (1987), but in just the last ten years, the budget has expanded by another $1 trillion. Recent U.S General Accounting Office audits of federal agencies find that tens of billions of dollars is spent inefficiently, spent on duplicative services, spent on overpayment to vendors, or is just missing–i.e., no one knows what happened to the money. Thank goodness Congress doesn’t have the authority to print money or it might try that to finance its unquenchable spending appetite.

I have long argued that one reason we have seen this financial malpractice on Capitol Hill over the past three decades has been the 1974 Budget Act, passed by the liberal post-Watergate Congress. This law gave Congress almost unlimited power to spend money, and stripped the president of traditional powers to save taxpayer dollars from frivolous spending.

Thirty years, and $3 trillion in debt later, it is time to enact a new Budget Act. The best proposal is the Family Budget Protection Act. This bill, sponsored by Chris Cox of California, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Chris Chocola of Indiana would help restore budget discipline in Congress and provide tools to eliminate wasteful and obsolete government programs. It recognizes that American families and businesses have to live within a budget–why not Congress?

The rules of the budget game have a big impact on the game’s outcome. We need new rules that put the interests of taxpayers first. That is precisely what the Family Budget Protection Act would accomplish. The best features of the bill include:

1) It restores the power of the president to line-item veto wasteful and parochial spending projects, which have multiplied in number and in cost in recent years.

2) It eliminates so called “baseline budgeting” which allows federal programs to grow each year on automatic pilot.

3) It creates a sunset provision for federal programs, so they are not put on a perpetual life support system.

4) It requires that if Congress and the president do not agree on a budget on time and on budget, that all federal programs will be funded at the previous year’s level, minus one percent.

5) For the first time ever, it creates enforceable overall spending limits on entitlement programs, which have been ravaging the federal budget over the past two decades.

It used to be that Republicans had an excuse for runaway budgets: They didn’t control the purse strings. Now the bloated spending is on their watch. In their decades of dominance, Democrats changed congressional processes to enhance their policy goals. Republicans have so far failed to do the same. Unless their talk about smaller government is so much eyewash, they should embrace this budget reform.

Currently, the deck is stacked against those who wish to reduce expenditures and/or cut taxes. The lesson from the states is that budget rules that deny lawmakers the power to spend and tax recklessly can be quite effective deterrents to fiscal irresponsibility. If Congress has any fiscal conscience left, it will give strong consideration to the Family budget Protection Act.

–Stephen Moore is president of Club for Growth Advocacy.


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