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Abolishing Budget Committee hits a symptom, not the disease

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It is highly unusual for anyone in government to suggest the position they hold should be eliminated.  But that’s exactly what Mike Enzi, a mild-mannered Republican Senator from Wyoming, has done. 

Enzi is the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Under the Budget Act of 1974, his committee, along with the House Budget Committee, is supposed to enforce fiscal discipline by setting the parameters of government spending. But in recent years, to paraphrase Shakespeare, its work has been honored more in the breach than the observance. The official deadline to produce a budget of April 15 comes and goes every year without even a pretense of producing a budget on time.

{mosads}To be sure, Enzi is not prepared to close the committee’s door just yet. But he is to be given credit for stimulating the discussion as a select committee on budget process reform gets underway. 

There is nothing new about the struggle over our national debt. Fiscal conservatives have been warning for years of the long term consequences of massive increases in the federal debt, longer than you might think.

It was in 1921 when a demand was heard to reduce the debt incurred during World War I (a mere $192 billion in today’s dollars). Out of that came the first Bureau of the Budget. Budget and spending remained separate until 1974 when a unified budget and appropriations process was created with a calendar designed to produce spending bills for the entire government by June 30 each year. This has actually succeeded four times in 44 years. 

Fiscal conservatives have long called for reform. After the “Gingrich Revolution” of 1994, Congressman Chris Cox of California chaired a special Task Force on Budget Reform and made it a priority during his years in the House, to no avail. Since then, periodic warnings of long-term consequences has produced a lot of rhetoric, but few results.

However, the spectacle earlier this year of a bidding war between those who wanted increased defense spending and those who wanted increased spending on everything else (resulting in a $300 billion increase in spending for everything over two years) seems to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  

Whatever the outcome of the next round of appropriations, it has become clear to all sides that, if nothing is done to overhaul the budget process, we are looking at unsustainable trillion dollar deficits that will, along with higher interest rates, create unsustainable interest payments on the debt. These are not long-term consequences any more; it is what we face in the near future. Changing this outcome will require some bold moves.

A few suggestions for the committee:

1. The authorization and appropriation process must be reformed. Other than defense, authorization of most programs has become a joke, giving the appropriations committees the power to set program spending levels. Authorization must again become relevant.

2. Congress has completely abandoned its authority over two-thirds of spending through mandatory spending programs. Congress should once again control most, if not all, federal spending. This debate is often viewed as an issue involving Social Security and Medicare. It will surprise many to hear that, if both are left untouched, there are still $1.2 trillion in mandatory spending programs. Believe it or not, a federal program to take care of the ponies on Chincoteague Island, Va., is part of mandatory spending.

3. Establish a zero based budgeting process that forces agencies to justify their programs, as 17 states have done in some form. It was 54 years ago when Ronald Reagan said “a government bureau is the closest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth.” It is, unfortunately, as true today as it was then.  One need look no further than dozens of GAO Reports that objectively catalogue wasteful and ineffective programs to know where to begin.

Our form of self-government, protected by a system of checks and balances as well as the activism of the American people, has been tested in every generation. It is not overdramatizing the problem to say that this looming fiscal crisis is one of the hardest tests our nation has ever faced. But unlike other challenges forced on us by Marxists and fascists, or resulting from a fundamental difference about the humanity of all people, this challenge is entirely of our own making.

We must not fail to meet this most recent challenge or we may forever forfeit the opportunity to fix other problems in the future. 

Larry Hart is a senior fellow with the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Government Reform. 

Tags Appropriation bill Deficit reduction in the United States Economic policy economy Fiscal conservatism Fiscal policy Government spending Macroeconomics mandatory spending Mike Enzi Mike Enzi United States federal budget United States House Committee on the Budget

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