Congress balanced the budget in 1998 — it's time to get it done again
© Greg Nash

Discretionary spending is important. It makes up about $1.07 trillion of the government’s $3.65 trillion in spending in the current fiscal year. True, it’s not the main driver of our debt. However, tracking discretionary spending is important. Talking about it is important. So is debating it — and cutting it.

The first sign that Congress has developed the political will and fiscal responsibility to once again balance the budget will be reined-in discretionary spending. Congress will never reduce spending on entitlements until it has developed the political muscle to cut discretionary spending. In order for entitlement reforms to become a reality, members of Congress need to learn fiscal discipline — an opportunity they get every year around this time.

Cutting spending, or even reducing the growth rate of federal spending, is hard. There is a constituency for every dollar Washington spends, and if that constituency has been successful in staying in the budget so far, chances are they’re pretty adept at lobbying. Even if it’s totally outrageous that Congress is spending taxpayer dollars on their cause, they’ll whine and squeal if they get cut, and their sob story will inevitably hit its mark.

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Congress must learn to deal with this tactic and prioritize spending only on the projects and programs that are worthy of federal spending. Congress must budget and spend as the taxpayers would want, not as the recipients of federal spending would want. They have a chance to do that every time they pass an appropriations bill — and the next round of appropriations are due at the end of September.

 

But even if the Congress wanted to budget and spend in a taxpayer-friendly way, its current practices make that impossible. In 19 of the last 30 fiscal years, Congress has passed an omnibus appropriations bill rather than individual acts.

This means consolidating most, if not all, regular appropriations bill into one vote. Each member has a choice to vote “yes” or “no” on everything at once. You either support all of the spending, or none of the spending. Most of the time, this vote is taken within days or hours of a looming “government shutdown.”

Under this ridiculous scenario, lawmakers can’t object to one program or another. They are forced to balance the entire package, often negotiated in secret by a handful of elected leaders. This is how so much wasteful and ridiculous spending is passed every year. Many of the expenditures would not have anywhere close to majority support of the Congress if they were judged on their own merits, but they survive because they’re attached to the omnibus.

There are 10 weeks before the Sept. 30 spending deadline. The House is currently planning to recess for six of those weeks. They’re intentionally leaving themselves insufficient time to move anything but an omnibus spending bill. The inevitable result of that action will be billions of dollars wasteful spending.

The only way to change this pattern is to return to the business of actually budgeting. Like American families do every week, Congress must sit down and consider the value each line item and decide what’s important and what isn’t.

When they stop passing omnibuses, and start reducing discretionary spending, that’s when we’ll know that we’re back on track to balance the budget.

Thomas Binion is director of congressional and executive branch relations at The Heritage Foundation, where he is responsible for programs on Capitol Hill and engagement with the administration.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.