Dealing with Deficits

Member Group : Susquehanna Valley Center

July 26, 2010 – By Susquehanna Valley Center Board Member Congressman Robert S.

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.

Robert S. Walker represented Pennsylvania’s 16th District in the U.S.
Congress. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Susquehanna Valley