Better budgets need better leaders

Better budgets need better leaders
© Stefani Reynolds

There are many good ideas to reform the broken federal budget process. Some would tweak House and Senate rules, such as reforming or even eliminating the budget and appropriations committees, which have fallen down on their jobs for decades. Others would reform the Congressional Budget Office to make it more responsive or transparent. There are also ideas to modernize the Budget Act of 1974 by more closely aligning the process of authorizing federal policies with spending federal dollars.

There are proposals to reform the debt limit or automatically reduce spending according to this or that formula. There are also some good ideas to amend the Constitution to require Congress to balance the budget every year. If I were back in the House or Senate, I might vote for them. But except for maybe the Balanced Budget Amendment, which would have no chance of passage, none of these ideas would do much good. None of them addresses the real problem behind our $22 trillion national debt and our annual deficits of hundreds of billions of dollars.


The problem with the budget is not the actual policy or process. It is the politicians. Members of Congress in both parties do not really want to rein in spending. For all their public speaking about “getting our fiscal house in order” along with those undeniable mathematical warnings about the coming debt crisis, Republicans and Democrats in the swamp just do not care enough. Activists, scholars, and elected officials have worked in good faith for years to think up ways around this fact. They have tried to design guardrails and mechanisms forcing action to make Congress do its job through commissions, super committees, budget caps, sequestration, and on and on. But nothing comes of them.

At the end of the day, no current Congress can bind a future Congress. Under our system, you cannot write laws that future lawmakers cannot repeal, waive, or ignore. The reason the budget process is broken is that today neither party wants to actually budget. They just want to spend, take credit for good news, and duck responsibility for bad news because that is the easiest way to get reelected every other November. They do not want to be legislators. They want to be pundits who talk on cable news.

To govern is to choose, as John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE said. Today, Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress do not want to choose. They want to spend trillions of dollars on programs they know will not work. These programs are filled with waste, fraud, and abuse, and are projected to bankrupt the country. Facing the resulting budget shortfalls, they would rather print and borrow money to cover up their recklessness than even converse about reforming federal programs or cutting federal spending.

This problem is an addiction, and like most addicts, members of Congress have developed sophisticated tactics to hide their behavior from scrutiny and accountability. Under the last minute process employed by both Republican and Democratic leaders, representatives and senators do not even have a chance to read the “must pass” spending bills before they vote on them, let alone debate or amend such important legislation.

A thousand pages long? A trillion dollars spent? Sights unseen? That was the point. If members did not vote yes, the troops will not be paid, the weather service and national parks will be shut down, and the nation would default on the debt. That is how the swamp convinces otherwise rational men and women to run the government like a shady roadside carnival. After these corrupt deals are put to bed, leaders in both parties and pundits in the media say we cannot let this happen again. What we need, they say, is a process by which members of both parties can get together in one room and work out their differences. They are right.

The Founders already knew that. They created such a room, or rather, two of them in the House and Senate chambers. That is where members from across the country and across party lines are supposed to come together and hammer out compromises. The catch is, they are supposed to do it in the light of day with public votes and C-SPAN cameras watching the whole thing. That is precisely why the Republicans and Democrats in Congress refuse to do it. It is not because they cannot work out their differences. It is that they are afraid of voters seeing how they do it.

But that is the only kind of budget reform that could really work in this branch of government. Over time, a transparent budget would become a more sustainable and more serious one. Politicians can never force each other to do the right thing. We have to force them ourselves, so until citizens insist on a return to constitutional legislating and budgeting, we will keep getting the federal budget the politicians think we deserve.

Jim DeMint, a former representative and senator from South Carolina, is chairman of the Conservative Partnership Institute. This is part of a series of columns on budget policy and entitlement reform appearing in The Hill.