Budget Deal Casts Doubt if Congress Will Ever Control Federal Spending

August 12, 2019 Updated: August 14, 2019

WASHINGTON—When Congress approved the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) of 2019, the measure authorized $322 billion in new spending and removed the ceiling on the $22 trillion national debt for two years.

The Aug. 1 vote was the fourth time in eight years that Congress busted through spending caps it had previously established in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) with a promise to lower the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion by 2021.

The BCA also mandated a binding sequestration process to enforce the spending caps and established a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to ensure the desired outcome.

But there was a catch, according to R Street Institute senior fellow James Wallner.

“It is important to note that the BCA did not actually reduce spending. It relied instead on the assumption that future Congresses would pass appropriations bills that complied with the spending caps,” Wallner wrote in an analysis on the think tank’s website on Aug. 12.

Wallner also pointed out that, largely for the same reason, none of the preceding budget agreements since the Gramm-Rudman Act of 1985 achieved their purpose. Gramm-Rudman was the first large budget agreement with a sequestration process to enforce spending limits.

So the main lesson of recent history, Wallner wrote, is that “Congress’s track-record when it comes to automatic enforcement mechanisms suggests that there is no way to automatically control the urge of its members to spend in the future … spending caps were repeatedly revised upward after they became law to allow for more spending.”

In other words, Wallner pessimistically concluded, “if Congress wants to spend more than the law permits, it will.”

A broad spectrum of political experts interviewed Aug. 12 by The Epoch Times agreed with Wallner, but not everyone.

“I think Wallner is too pessimistic,” said Americans for Limited Government (ALG) President Richard Manning. “From 2011 to 2014, federal government spending declined or was flat, which accounted for the dramatic drop in the federal deficit.”

The deficit reduction, Manning said, “did not occur because President Barack Obama was submitting budget cuts, but because the House of Representatives imposed those cuts on him.

“Unfortunately, the GOP lost its nerve in budget-cutting under pressure from defense hawks who sought massive increases, which are always accompanied by massive nondefense discretionary increases … Ultimately, if the voters demand cuts and hold Congress accountable, those cuts will happen.”

Similarly, Democratic campaign strategist Chris Hanley said spending will always exceed revenues as long as “Congress is wasting obscene amounts of taxpayer money on a Cold War-era Pentagon budget, while giving the Rockefellers and Carnegies of our age every ability to dodge a tax bill.”

Hanley, who is host of the “Keep It In Perspective” podcast, believes “a future Congress, one less skewed by partisan gerrymandering, will need to completely re-evaluate spending priorities and overhaul the tax code to strengthen our economy and stave off an insurmountable debt.”

Two things must happen before such a day comes, according to Senate staff veteran Brian Darling, who said Wallner is “spot on” because “statutory budget agreements have proven to be a failure from Gramm-Rudman in the ’80s to the ‘sequester’ that was just breached in the most recent budget agreement.”

Darling pointed to “a constitutional amendment that sets a cap on spending, a prohibition on raising taxes to balance the budget, and a requirement of an annual balanced budget” as the first step. “The second is for the voters to put spending as a priority on the list of issues they want to be addressed before they vote for candidates.”

Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) President David Williams agreed with Darling on the need for a balanced budget amendment because “the landscape is littered with good intentions that they never actually fulfill. They always come up with a grand agreement to avoid a shutdown or busting the debt ceiling, but we never see the fruits of that.”

Williams said cutting spending is so difficult because, for a member of Congress, it always means “taking something away from somebody … and you have so many people coming to Washington to advocate for increased spending.”

The spending problem won’t be solved, according to Democratic strategist Jim Manley, “until Republicans bring increased revenue to the table. We are not going to be able to deal with this issue any more by just cutting spending.”

Manley is the former communications director for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Wallner told The Epoch Times he thinks “a constitutional requirement that budgets must balance will make it harder for legislators to deficit spend,” but he pointed out that “legislators already have a mechanism at their disposal to enforce a balanced budget, the debt ceiling.”

And the federal budget still isn’t balanced.

Meanwhile, the Treasury Department said on Aug. 12 the 2019 deficit is $867 billion, with two months left in the fiscal year.