The Budget's Broken. It's Time to Fix It

Budgetary dysfunction is compromising Congress’ ability to legislate.

The recent spending and debt deal clearly illustrates that the federal budget process is in serious need of reform. America’s current budget challenges are directly related to this breakdown and fixing it can put the country on a more responsible spending path going forward.

If there was any doubt that the federal budget process is broken, consider this: Congress has passed budget resolutions in less than half of the last 15 fiscal years, and prior to this year's balanced budget resolution, the last time we passed a 10-year balanced budget was in 2001.  In fact the annual appropriations process has been completed on time in only four of the past 40 years. In that same period, Congress has passed 173 short term spending bills to avoid a government shutdown for an average of 186 days per year – over half of the year. The congressional budget process that was put in place more than 40 years ago is in desperate need of reform. 

Since the Congressional Budget Act was passed 40 years ago, the federal government has spent more money than is coming in almost 90 percent of the time.  And the national debt as a share of total public and private sector production has more than tripled. We currently have a looming debt of $18 trillion on its way to $27 trillion. If interest rates were to rise to a moderate five percent, we would owe $743 billion a year just for interest. In fact, every one-percentage point growth in interest rates adds more than $151 billion in interest payments. That would mean $700 billion less to spend on programs or $700 billion in cuts or additional taxes and increased taxes drive down revenue.

Duplication, fraud, waste and spending with no current authority in federal programs is also rampant across government, but the Government Accountability Office’s annual list of offending programs has yet to force meaningful legislative action. Program authority, where congressional committees review programs for validation, transparency and measurable goals, are often ignored. Last year, the government spent $293.5 billion on 260 expired programs, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

We can see this budgetary and fiscal dysfunction represented in Congress' dismal approval ratings. Generally, a well-functioning budget process strengthens democracy giving citizens a better idea of government's role and provides them with the knowledge that their tax dollars are being spent wisely. When the process breaks down, so does the people's faith in government and their elected officials. 

A strong and effective budget process must 1) encourage regular action and predictability, 2) require active legislative oversight and 3) provide transparency and accurate information for lawmakers and the public. These elements are critical to ensuring that our government is effective and accountable to hardworking taxpayers.

Reforming the budget process would allow Congress to do its job and enact its budget and appropriations on time. Earlier this year we took that first step by passing a balanced budget that would serve as a fiscal blueprint for lawmakers to authorize and appropriate funding to allocate taxpayers' hard-earned dollars. But once again the process has ground to a halt. 

The “power of the purse” is one of the most important constitutional roles of Congress. Its authority to tax and spend must be exercised by the representatives of the people so that they can hold government accountable. With this great power, our Founding Fathers also instilled a great responsibility – they understood that constant review was critical to spending these funds wisely and effectively, and without it, the bureaucracy would run amok. Congress, therefore, has a constitutional duty to use its regular, deliberative and transparent process to exercise the power of the purse and provide effective oversight to keep government accountable. The biggest mistake we could make as an institution would be to forfeit that power to the executive branch.

The first step to correcting our government's fiscal and trust deficits is to put in place a budget process that truly makes the federal government more effective and accountable. This will help restore the faith and trust of hardworking Americans, who yearn for a government that is both accountable and effective. Instilling the federal budget process with regular action and predictability, active legislative oversight and spending transparency, is critical to strengthening our democracy and reducing our nation’s unsustainable spending and debt.

By:  Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY)
Source: U.S. News and World Report