WASHINGTON—Federal officials are consuming tax dollars so quickly that America’s national debt is $22 trillion, and it’s increasing $100,000 every second of every hour of every day, 365 days a year, with no end in sight.
This government spending tsunami isn’t happening despite Congress but mainly because of it. For leaders like Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), such disturbing numbers mean the congressional budget process, adopted in 1974, is broken in 2019 and must be fixed.
Meanwhile, the problem is steadily getting worse.
“Within a decade, we will add another $10 trillion to the debt no matter what happens because of Social Security and Medicare,” Perdue, who is a member of the Senate Budget Committee, said in a recent speech before the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.
“Over the next 30 years, the debt will go up another $130 trillion because of these future unfunded liabilities we’ve already committed to.
“What we have is a situation that is spiraling out of control, and the only way I know how to fix it is to break it down into pieces and start looking for solutions.”
To emphasize the urgency of the problem Perdue described, the latest figures from the Treasury show the deficit for the first four months of the 2019 federal fiscal year to be $310 billion, compared to $176 billion for that period in 2018, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. That’s a 76 percent increase.
Perdue’s proposed solution is his “Fix Funding First Act,” which has five provisions. The first is to change “the federal government’s fiscal year to match the calendar year.”
“Second, this bill establishes biennial budgeting,” reads a statement on Perdue’s website.
“Third, this bill makes the budget a law. Fourth, it creates milestones with consequences to hold us accountable. Last, our proposal requires the Senate Budget Committee to complete a 5-year strategic plan—just like people in the real world. I believe this is the first step to fix the funding process.”
Perdue is not alone in Congress in worrying about the broken budget process; the problem is in getting enough of his colleagues to agree on a course of action.
Rep. Michael Gallagher (R-Wis.) wrote in an article in The Atlantic last November, titled “How to Salvage Congress,” that when he arrived in Congress in 2017 he thought the problem was bad members. He thinks differently today.
“The reality is that Congress cannot get anything done because it is not equipped to get anything done. It is no longer a tool suited to its original purpose of making laws and providing oversight,” Gallagher wrote.
“It has instead become a theater used by both parties to stoke the outrages of their bases. We must reform the processes and power structures of Congress, or we will further tear our country apart.”.
The problem, Gallagher said, is the extreme concentration of power in Congress in the leadership, with the result being that members who buck Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and their lieutenants, or who aren’t on the appropriations committees, basically have little power to influence decisions.
Bases get stoked and campaign dollars are raised, Gallagher said, but the government is still spending the nation into financial oblivion because those with power focus obsessively on political advantage today, while ignoring the long-term problems of tomorrow, like deficits and debt.
Gallagher proposed calendar changes so Congress can work three consecutive weeks, then spend a week back home; let committee members choose chairmen instead of the leadership; and, most controversially, abolish appropriations committees while combining the appropriation and authorization functions into a streamlined system of standing committees.
For Congress to spend tax dollars, an authorizing committee first has to approve the purpose of the expenditure, but a separate appropriations panel then decides how much can be spent.
Because they decide how much is spent, appropriators have long been the most influential and powerful members of Congress, while the authorizing committees often play second fiddle in the legislative process.
Gallagher’s proposals are intended to give Congress more time to focus more effectively on what’s important, including spending and oversight, by using a reinvigorated committee system that decentralizes power back to individual members.
“You would actually make each committee more powerful—you spread the power out more evenly, with the goal of making the work of each individual member more meaningful,” Gallagher told The Epoch Times in a June 18 interview. “So they can channel their energy into the legislative process and committee work, as opposed to just going on cable TV and raising money.”
Asked about the response he’s received, Gallagher was not optimistic.
“I tried to make the case in front of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, but it’s populated by a few appropriators who I think it’s fair to say are opposed to” his third proposal, Gallagher said.
“So I’ve gotten a pretty dismissive reaction so far, but I think that just reflects the fact appropriators have all the power right now in Congress, and they don’t want anything that would reduce their power.
“The response, I think it’s fair to say, is I haven’t won hearts and minds.” He added that “it’s going to be a hard fight, but I think it’s a necessary one.”
Keeping Appropriators Strong
Among those un-won hearts and minds is Gallagher’s Republican colleague, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), who has represented Chattanooga and Tennessee’s third congressional district since 2011. Fleischmann is the ranking GOP member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
“I am emphatically strong in favor of keeping the separation between appropriators and authorizers in both bodies, in the House and the Senate,” Fleischmann told The Epoch Times in an interview on June 24.
“The legislative branch has suffered in recent history a loss of power and authority, which has been slowly but surely usurped by the executive branch, and that’s whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House.
“Keeping the appropriations committees as strong, vibrant bodies exercising direction on where we want our dollars spent is not only critically important constitutionally, but I also think it is much more beneficial to the country.
“I think the American people would much rather have legislators than the executive branch deciding where funds are going.”
Fleischmann agreed that Congress has itself ceded much of its power to executive branch bureaucrats, and that “once that power has been ceded legislatively or otherwise, it’s near impossible to regain it, and that’s why keeping whatever strengths we do have is vital.”
“I think the appropriations committee is the positive catalyst for Congress to exercise the spending authority it still retains,” he said.
In other words, diluting the appropriators would further weaken Congress on spending and oversight issues, Fleischmann believes.
Making Appropriations Permanent
Another idea for fixing the budget process—making appropriations permanent unless specifically changed in a following year—was advanced by North Carolina State University professor Andrew Taylor in an article in the Spring 2019 edition of National Affairs.
Taylor pointed to the increasing frequency of continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills as a result of the present budget system’s requirement that Congress make a new appropriation every year, or else departments and agencies have to close down because they have no funding.
“Under permanent appropriations, each program and agency would be directed to plan for annual expenditures of a certain amount,” Taylor wrote. “The Treasury would replenish the annual allotment for each appropriation at the beginning of the next fiscal year, and repeatedly thereafter, until legislation alters it.”
Since agencies would have sufficient funding to continue from year to year, shutdowns would no longer be prevalent, and Congress could focus on other problems.
Fleischmann was skeptical of Taylor’s idea, however, noting that “the needs of the country change very rapidly; the most poignant example of that is the border.”
“Who would have thought a year ago that we would have the unprecedented magnitude of crisis at the border as we do now?” he said.
Having an annual appropriations process “is beneficial because we can address such issues in a much more responsible manner,” he said.
Also skeptical was Democratic strategist Jim Manley, former communications director for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“I could not agree more with the idea that the appropriation process is broken, but I am not convinced that making appropriations permanent is the right way to go,” Manley told The Epoch Times.
“Look, as a liberal democrat, I am all in favor of robust government spending, but, as someone who has been involved in the process for years, I also want robust oversight as well.”
Another idea with some support is biennial budgeting, for which Gallagher expressed enthusiasm because it’s a reform “we can do right off the bat that makes a lot of sense.”
Underlying all of the problems and proposed solutions, however, is the issue of individual congressmen’s political will, or the lack thereof, according to Republican strategist Brian Darling, a former senior political aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
“The great irony of any proposal to abolish the process is that the 1974 [budget reform] was an attempt to reform a system that was allowing overspending,” Darling told The Epoch Times.
“Now members of Congress have abused that process to continue overspending and budget-busting appropriations. An abolition of the appropriations process, and budget committees as we know it, might help in the short term, but will not solve the long-term spending challenges that face Congress.”
Ending the spending crisis means adopting a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget and a multiyear plan of mandatory spending cuts, Darling said.