Sometime this fall, Congress will have to vote again on increasing our nation's debt limit. We have already exceeded the current $18.1 trillion limit, but through various bookkeeping gimmicks, the Treasury can postpone default for a few months — but not indefinitely. We have seen this picture show before, and we know how it ends.
The House, by a vote of 226-197, and the Senate, by a vote of 53-44, have now passed a budget for the first time in six years. Both bodies deserve credit for this accomplishment. I commend Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden says he's open to altering, eliminating filibuster to advance voting rights Pelosi says GOP senators 'voted to aid and abet' voter suppression for blocking revised elections bill Manchin insists he hasn't threatened to leave Democrats MORE (R) for his approach, meeting with Democrats and Republicans looking for common ground. It has already paid dividends and will lead to a change in the same old movie script. Unfortunately, in both bodies, there were no Democrats that supported the budget, and there was additional Republican opposition. I believe that a reading of the history of the United States will show that nothing great has ever been accomplished with such partisan votes. To those that insist on "my way or the highway," you should get a good map and start planning your trip today.
Now, the hard part comes. How do we achieve the spending reductions called for in this budget resolution?
Let's start with this year's appropriation bills: Do more than simply meet the "302b allocations" under the budget. We have already heard many complain that these allocations are too tight for both domestic and defense programs. Nothing says that every cent of those allocations has to be spent. Remember that important lesson that our parents tried to teach us: Don't let that money burn a hole in our pocket.
Take a hard look at the programs you fund and zero out those that have outlived their usefulness. I know there are times that the appropriators have zeroed out some programs, but our budget situation is so serious that they need to do even more. These are tough times, so we need leaders willing to step up and make tough choices. All of us must come to grips with the fact that sooner or later spending has to come down, and taxes may have to go up on somebody, someday.
Appropriators should consider sunsetting some spending, even when the authorizers renew spending authority. A sunset clause within a law provides that the law shall be terminated after a set amount of time unless further legislative action is taken to extend the law. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) provides a good example of a sunset review process. Once a substance has been approved for use in organic by the NOSB, it must be reviewed by the board every five years, at which point it can be removed if it isn't benefitting the industry. Likewise, every committee of jurisdiction has some programs that are not as good as others. Take a percentage (5 percent?) of the 302b allocation, find cuts to make, and then maybe add some of that money back to those programs judged to need more funding. It could be a good compromise.
With any luck, Congress and the president will do a better job on a few other immediate issues.
First, approve trade promotion authority — an authority that both Democratic and Republican administrations have been granted for the past 30 years, and one which should be granted again by Congress to President Obama. This would allow the president to negotiate trade agreements to create a more level playing field in world trade for our companies and workers. Another crucial item is the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank (EIB). It's amazing to me that some folks still do not see the EIB as the American job protector that it is and as one of our few remaining tools in international trade. We in the United States need to be truly serious about getting fair and open access to all markets. That won't happen if our trading partners can't have confidence in the word of our negotiators. It seems to me more jobs will be created with 7 billion customers than 330 million.
Secondly, thanks to Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) of Texas for incurring the wrath of his own party by working to get more Democrats to support lifting the ban on oil exports; it will be another job creator in the United States. Speaking of which, the president could do his part by approving the Keystone XL pipeline. Lastly, America would benefit tremendously if Congress would pass an immigration reform bill this year. There are enough good ideas out there on how to do it, but in the end, only compromise will get 'er done!
Stenholm is a former U.S. representative from Texas, serving from 1979 to 2005. He is currently a senior policy adviser at Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz PC.