Budgetary ‘kill lists' are a good way to kill wasteful spending

Groups across the ideological spectrum have raised alarm about President Trump’s recently unveiled budget blueprint that, as detailed last week by The Washington Post, targets numerous federal programs for elimination.

While reasonable people will disagree about the importance of each of the targeted programs, lost in this debate is the bipartisan recognition that many federal government programs are, in fact, redundant or unnecessary and should be cut or killed altogether. All that’s missing is a ready mechanism that would allow Congress and the president to work together efficiently to weed them out.

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As any observer of the U.S. government knows, the current budget process is a mess. Despite being required by law to adopt a budget by April 15 of each year, Congress has only met this deadline six times since 1977; in recent years, it has failed to adopt a budget at all. Congress also routinely chooses to ignore or deride the president’s proposed budgets, with the result often being passage of a hasty, last-minute continuing resolution or omnibus bill to keep the government’s lights on and avoid a shutdown.

 

The government’s budgetary procedures eventually will need a general overhaul, but in the meantime Congress is ignoring easy, low-hanging fruit. Identifying wasteful and redundant government programs has been a bipartisan exercise. Like President George W. Bush before him, President Obama’s proposed budgets included a “terminations, reductions and savings” list—colloquially known as the “kill list”—which identified unnecessary government spending that could be reduced or zeroed out. 

In his 2015 budget blueprint, for example, Obama’s “kill list” proposed cuts that added up to $17 billion. Some of the programs Obama targeted for reductions—such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative—even overlap with ones targeted in Trump’s budget, albeit at different levels of reduction.

To be sure, $17 billion is but a small bite out of the U.S.’s nearly $4 trillion budget, but that doesn’t mean Congress and the president should be absolved of their responsibility to trim excess budget fat. Plus, if the “kill list” became an annual tradition, the savings would add up over time. 

To streamline this process, Congress should adopt a procedure for expedited consideration of such annual “kill lists,” which would ensure these proposed eliminations actually have a chance of becoming law. The president would submit a yearly list of redundant and wasteful programs to Congress, and both houses would vote on an up-or-down basis to enact or reject the cuts, thereby avoiding the Senate filibuster and other procedural hurdles. 

If Congress is reluctant to entrust the president with identifying programs for the chopping block, it could create a commission to do so, styled after the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. BRAC was used successfully in the 1980s and 1990s to consolidate and close unnecessary military installations. The commission’s recommendations would be considered by Congress on an expedited basis and sent to the president’s desk for final approval.

Cutting individual government programs is notoriously difficult, given that each program develops a constituency with a vested interested in its continuation. That’s why bundling the many cuts identified either by the president or a commission and forcing an up-or-down vote on the full list could at least partially immunize congressmen from political blowback for such cuts.

Budgetary politics has become rancorous, hyperpartisan and frustratingly inefficient in recent years. Congress could make a down payment on bipartisan progress to reduce the cost of government through an expedited “kill list” process. It should do so now.

C. Jarrett Dieterle (@CjDieterle) is a governance policy fellow at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for limited government in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to LegBranch.com.


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