Some rare good news for fiscal conservatives

In February, the United States budget deficit reached a grim milestone, topping $234 billion, the largest monthly liability on record.

The latest review of these numbers by the Congressional Budget Office shows that the recent increase has been driven overwhelmingly by changes in outlays rather than revenue. The truth is, government spending has never been less restrained. 

However, recent worries about the deficit seem to disappear from mainstream parlance as soon as spending cuts are put on the table. Even the somewhat marginal spending cuts — or more accurately, cuts to the rate of spending growth — suggested in the president’s recent budget request have caused a furor. 

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After having passed on the opportunity to pursue budget process reform last session, the House now looks likely to punt on passing a budget at all.

Of course, whatever budget could be agreed upon between the Democrats’ progressive wing and its more moderate members from swing districts would likely contain more spending, not less — and few attempts at reform. 

In the Senate, the story has been somewhat more optimistic. The recently introduced Senate budget plan was lauded by the centrist Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget for including “realistic deficit reduction” and for providing a roadmap that “is what a serious budget looks like.”

Additionally, two bills introduced this session by Senator Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Senate talks on stalled Violence Against Women Act reauthorization unravel MORE (R-Iowa) represent steps toward reforming a system that continues to allow higher spending to occur seemingly on autopilot. 

The first would require “every project supported with federal funds [to] include a price tag with its cost to taxpayers.”

Currently, only federal grantees receiving funds from the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, or Education are required to report both the dollar amount and the percentage of their total budget that comes from taxpayers. 

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A new report from the Government Accountability Office shows that these requirements are regularly ignored. For that reason, Ernst’s legislation would not only extend these reporting requirements to all other executive departments but also create new enforcement mechanisms to ensure proper reporting.

Waste and abuse can be a convenient target for lawmakers who are unwilling to make more meaningful and much harder decisions about the true drivers of government spending.

But in a time when little seems to be on the table, identifying the smallest of problems early can be a way to avoid million-dollar waste turning into billions down the road.

For the same reason, in February, the senator also filed the “The Billion Dollar Boondoggle Act,” which would require an annual report to taxpayers listing every government-funded project that is more than $1 billion over budget or five years behind schedule.

When introducing that legislation, Sen. Enrst said the goal is to “allow us to identify problems before they become a bottomless pit of taxpayer dollars.” Government watchdogs have long reported on programs that spiral out of control for years before anyone finds out, and this bill would aim to put a stop to it.

It is clear that much work remains to get federal spending under control, but fiscal conservatives should avoid the temptation to despair too much.

Like it or not, basic math will soon require a difficult conversation about the nation’s largest programs, and we should be encouraged to see steps in the meantime that bring sunlight to the myriad ways government wastes.

Jonathan Bydlak is a fiscal policy expert and the founder and president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He also spearheads SpendingTracker.org.