Kudos to the legislators trying to fix our broken budget

Kudos to the legislators trying to fix our broken budget
© Greg Nash

The frantic news cycle of 2019 is hard to keep up with — from presidential candidates to overseas tensions, the dry nature of fiscal policy don’t make many headlines.

But beyond all the noise, familiar budgeting problems are arising again and poised to create another round of utterly predictable crises. As the United States is bearing down on yet another fiscal emergency of its own making, when will Congress finally have had enough?

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The details of this latest crisis are as worrisome as they are dull. The United States technically breached the debt limit several months ago, but a good economy and so-called “extraordinary measures” have headed off the risk that the country can’t actually pay its bills.

The problem, of course, is that this reprieve is not likely to last past this fall. Now, bitterly divided lawmakers must find an agreement to raise the limit sooner or later.

Failing to do so will not, as commonly assumed, automatically equal default, but steep across-the-board cuts to government programs are a relatively unprecedented situation nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Congress seems to be falling into familiar patterns when it comes to budgeting, with House Democratic leaders reportedly having trouble lining up their caucus in support of a $733 billion Pentagon spending package that they believe is necessary to get Republican support for higher spending elsewhere in the budget.

The problem? Some progressive Democrats want less Pentagon spending and more domestic spending, and Republicans are split on the question. Some of the few remaining fiscal hawks are insisting that Congress control spending and maintain budget caps, while others in the caucus want even higher Pentagon spending at all costs.

All of these debates keep happening — with an overriding sense doom and urgency — because the choice Congress has created for itself is always binary: A majority of Congress must somehow come together to support a giant framework that covers everything from war spending to welfare, or the government will shut down.

This crisis is entirely of Congress’ own making, because these negotiations, like dozens before them, are occurring outside of the congressionally mandated budget process.

The idea of Congress passing a budget and then deliberately going through each appropriations bill in an adult manner is nearly a fantasy at this point, but it’s how the system was set up to work.

Without fundamental change, it’s hard to see a world in which anyone, even a Congress made up of fiscal hawks, could achieve meaningful spending reform because there’s simply no time to do so. The rules — or lack thereof — are stacked against sanity.

Not everyone in Congress is happy to let this status quo continue. This week, the Senate Budget Committee held a public hearing on "Fixing a Broken Budget and Spending Process.”

Chairman Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziThe 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal On The Money: Fed poised to give Trump boost with rate cut | Parties unable to reach deal in Trump tax return lawsuit | New York opens investigation into Capital One data breach Outgoing Senate Budget chair unveils plans to replace Budget Committee MORE (R-Wyo.) said of the efforts, “Clearly, we have a problem. Congress can’t keep avoiding its basic duties or ignoring the real impacts on our country.”

Legislators have tried over the years to remake the rules by which they spend our money, but they have yet to succeed. When the Joint Select Committee ended the last session of Congress without an agreement to reform the processes that have arisen out of the 1974 Budget Act, it was unclear whether anyone would try again.

This week’s Senate hearing is an encouraging sign that the momentum remains to find a process that actually works and will allow the sort of deliberative decision-making that’s required to make wise decisions for the world’s largest economy. For all of our sakes, we should hope voters keep up the pressure until politicians find real solutions.

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