Will the federal government’s nonstop spending binge continue?

Later this week we will reach the expiration date on the current short-term continuing resolution that is funding the federal government and preventing a shutdown.  

This is no way to run a government. That the largest economic entity in the world is running without an actual budget in place should be shocking; that it has become routine is downright depressing. Yet we have entered a new fiscal year without a budget in 12 of the last 20 years. In a company, leadership would promptly be fired for such fiduciary malfeasance.

But the story is on the verge of getting even worse.

In August, Congress passed a massive $320 billion two-year increase to the existing spending caps, which allowed for $169 billion in additional spending for this year’s appropriations —ostensibly to help move the process along. This $169 billion is not chump change even in the massive federal budget. It is enough to cover almost doubling the U.S. Army’s budget, quadrupling Highway Trust Fund spending or writing a $500 check to every person in the United States.

Recall that these spending caps were originally put in place to force Congress to agree to savings elsewhere in the budget — if Congress couldn’t live within the tight discretionary limits, they could find other better targeted savings. 

For the first four years of caps, they were reasonably successful, and though Congress lifted them, they also offset the costs (albeit with a bunch of games and gimmicks included in their offsets).

But the past two deals have been far more reckless. Starting in 2017, Congress lifted the caps –and then added even more spending – bringing the total increase to over $600 billion in four years, most of which was not paid for. Between 2017 and 2021, the caps on discretionary spending will have increased 21 percent. 

The argument made by many in casting the fiscally irresponsible vote to increase spending for this year by so much was that the additional spending was needed to help smooth the path for an easy appropriations process. Instead, 78 days after the start of the fiscal year, it is safe to say that plan did not work. Not a single one of the 12 funding bills has been enacted. 

Instead, leadership is contemplating adding a number of unrelated items — presumably none of them paid for. These include:

  • reviving special interest tax breaks that expired two years ago ($35 billion);
  • delaying or repealing important ObamaCare taxes ($45 billion to $400 billion);
  • a bailout of multi-employer pensions (up to $65 billion);
  • and new spending gimmicks ($25 billion or more).

Some of these may be worthwhile, though not all of them. It is ridiculous to be considering retroactive tax cuts, and the Cadillac tax is supported by nearly 100 experts.

For those that are determined to be important priorities, we should be willing to pay for them, not expect our kids to. Our deficit is already projected to be $1 trillion, or 4.6 percent of GDP, this year — the largest it has ever been when the economy was this strong.

Last time there was a budget busting spending bill, the president promised he would “never sign another bill like this again,” referring to a bill packaged together and released at the last minute without time for lawmakers to consider their priorities.

But throughout this economic expansion, instead of getting our fiscal situation in order, we have been on a non-stop borrowing binge, which harms our long-term growth prospects and our national security. It hinders our ability to fight a recession, make needed investments and leave a stronger nation to our children. To be sure, eschewing hard choices makes it easier for politicians, but that is far short of real leadership.

It is time for Congress and the president to, at the very least, take the Hippocratic oath to do no harm and not add more borrowing on top of our already massive national debt.

Instead they should pass a clean spending bill with no new borrowing tucked in. Every lawmaker knows it would be reckless to cram more debt into a must-pass end of the year bill. They should start voting like they care about the fiscal health of this country, and about their kids.

Maya MacGuineas is president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Tags budget Discretionary spending Economy of the United States Government spending United States federal budget

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