Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dealing With Deficits

The Congressional budget process is broken. It seems likely that neither the House or the Senate will even consider a budget this year. And even if both houses were to pass a budget, it is impossible to imagine a joint budget resolution ( something agreed to by both bodies) emerging. Just as problematic, the appropriations process also will fail to produce the series of spending bills required to keep the government running, but will again resort to temporary stopgap measures. Eventually all of the the spending will get wrapped into a huge, almost incomprehensible, package that will emerge sometime toward the end of the current calendar year.

When Americans wonder why we are faced with such massive debt and deficit, they need look no further than the escalating failure of the congressional budgeting and spending. No more important annual duty exists for the Congress than this one. The current House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt of South Carolina said some years ago, "If you can't budget, you can't govern." Of course he said that when Republicans controlled Capitol Hill, but his words carry a lot of truth and help emphasize, in light of his own inability to even produce a budget, that the problem is very much a bi-partisan one.

Congressional Democrats supported by President Obama told the nation earlier this year that they had dealt with the problem with legislation known as Pay Go. Under this law which they passed and the President signed, no spending was to occur that was not paid for by either spending cuts in other areas or new revenues. But according to a recent ABC News report, since the time of the legislation's approval, Congress has gone on a spending spree that has cost $230 billion in new deficit and debt. And to punctuate the problem, ABC explained that the debt added in the last year was one trillion dollars, an amount that took the United States over 200 years to accumulate from it's founding. So, the promise of Pay Go has not materialized and makes that effort look pathetic.

So, what to do? The answer lies in some considerable congressional restructuring and a simple decision to obey congressional legislative rules. The rules state that nothing can be spent unless the spending has been properly authorized, meaning that policy for the spending has been set. This rule is regularly waived in the legislative process. Whole agencies have gone without proper authorization for years, meaning that they are spending money without a policy plan. They get their money from an appropriations process which simply ignores the rules and the fact that none of the appropriate policy legislation is in place. Because Congress can waive its own rules by majority vote, the practice has become extensive.

The harm in this kind of governance is considerable. Without long-term policy, departments and agencies drift along without purpose and without focus. Appropriations are for one year only, so even though they get their money, the departments and agencies have no real sense about where they are headed and why, a sure incubator for waste and abuse. The authorization process is designed to lay out long term programs which focus on results. The appropriations process is designed to determine the spending levels required to carry out the policies and programs and do so on an annual basis. The fact that appropriations have come to dominate congressional deliberations means short-term focus and and long-term mismanagement. Is it any wonder that the result is more debt and deficit? And it happens all because Congress refuses to live by its own rules. The answer -- pass no spending bill unless the policy is in place thereby forcing the authorization process to work.

But the simple act of requiring authorizations will require some restructuring on Capitol Hill to accommodate modern realities. A fundamental congressional reform should be the elimination of separate appropriations committees in the two house of Congress. Instead, exclusive appropriations subcommittees should be established in all the policy committees of the House and Senate. The appropriations subcommittees would be responsible for determining the annual spending for the areas under the jurisdiction of that committee. Therefore, the appropriators would be included in the setting of long term policy through their participation on the full authorizing committee and those on the committee focused on policy would be a part of approving the spending plan at the full committee level. This pattern of shared responsibility would end up including all members of both bodies in the work of policy setting and yearly funding of the policies they approved.

Just changing the structure would not negate the need to pass the bills through both full House and full Senate, but it would improve the prospects for that activity, too. Because all Representatives and Senators would have the burden of carrying both authorizing bills and appropriations bills to the Floor, the level of debate and understanding would certainly improve. And if bills were considered under circumstances allowing for more amendments and debate, the atmosphere for attaining more bi-partisan action would also improve.

If the thought of changing the work of Congress in such a fundamental way seems daunting, it does need to be recognized that prior to the 1860s, there was no separate appropriations committee. Sometimes what's old should become new again. And that goes for reducing debt and deficit, too. And all it takes is following the rules.

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