Politics & Policy

21 Trillion Reasons to Fix the Budget Process

Inspecting a sheet of $1 bills at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
The omnibus spending bill is the product of a broken appropriations mechanism.

In the wee hours of the morning last Friday, the Senate passed a 2,232-page, $1.3 trillion budget-busting spending bill barely 24 hours after it was introduced to the public. The bill provides funding for the 2018 fiscal year, which began six months ago. Members did not even have time to read and digest the bill, let alone debate and amend its provisions. Unfortunately, this unseemly process of dropping a take-it-or-leave-it spending bill right before the deadline is not an outlier; it has become the norm.

The current structure under the Congressional Budget Act, created in 1974, was designed to create a more transparent budget and appropriations process. But in reality, it created a budgeting process so incredibly difficult to work through, it’s been done correctly only four times in 45 years. To say the budget process is broken is an understatement. It’s time for a change.

Several weeks ago, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) created the Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Reforms to focus on fixing the broken budget and appropriations process. This is positive news.

We have both advocated eliminating government waste within the budget, but we will not get a better budget until we get a better budget process. The nation’s mounting $21 trillion federal debt presents a significant danger to the youngest Americans and generations still to come. For the sake of our kids and grandkids, this select committee must yield fruit.

Right now a debate is unfolding about how to provide certainty to the Dreamers, who were illegally brought to the United States as young, undocumented children through no fault of their own. It is an important national discussion that magnifies the American values of fairness and the rule of law. The same can be said for an entire generation of young Americans, who, through no fault of their own, will foot the bill for massive promises they had no say in creating. If we do not get on top of our nation’s finances, the idea of the American dream will be squelched for generations of Americans.

While exiting the economic malaise of the past decade is an achievement worthy of celebrating, whether this moment is a one-hit wonder or a lasting legacy will depend on whether we can fix our nation’s long-term budget trajectory. Our economy is not sustainable if our nation’s finances are not sustained. Currently, they are not. Not even close.

The unsustainability of our budget outlook is not a Republican talking point or a scare tactic used by conservatives to limit the government. It is an established fact that is laid out in no uncertain terms by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, Congressional Budget Office, Congressional Research Service, and every other independent, objective budget analysis.

This coming year, our budget will have the largest peacetime, non-recession deficit in American history. It is also the lowest projected deficit in our foreseeable future. Ten thousand Americans are turning 65 every day. The number of Americans age 65 and older will double from 41 million to 82 million between 2010 and 2040. This is an unprecedented demographic wave that will — unless there are major reforms — wash away our government finances. The gap between what the federal government has promised and the amount that we will collect in taxes is a gargantuan $111 trillion. That is $923,000 per taxpayer, or $30,000 per year for the next 30 years. Each!

This coming year, our budget will have the largest peacetime, non-recession deficit in American history. It is also the lowest projected deficit in our foreseeable future.

The Fiscal Democracy Index measures what percentage of tax dollars are left over after spending on mandatory programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ payments, farm programs, and others) and interest on the debt. In the 1960s, it was above 60 percent. Today it is 20 percent. In 10 years it will be zero. In other words, when the next generation steps into leadership, all of their tax dollars will have already been spoken for.

In the future, no one will remember the current stock-market highs when we face the reality of deep debt and limited economic options. It is time to stop following the well-worn path of deficits and start leading our nation down the road less traveled towards financial health.

President Trump campaigned on Making America Great Again. It’s time that we all start working to Keep America Great for the next generation. Hopefully, the Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Reforms can produce a bipartisan common-sense solution that begins to solve our debt crisis.

— James Lankford is the junior senator from Oklahoma. Tom Coburn represented Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate for ten years, retiring in 2015. Dr. Coburn is the founder of Pursuit, an organization that engages Millennials about the federal debt.

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