Congress and President Bush once again failed to enact any of the 12 appropriations bills prior to the beginning of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. Recriminations abound, with House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) blasting Bush for posing for “political holy pictures” during a press conference Bush held criticizing Democrats for inaction. The budget process in Washington continues to be, in one word, broken.
The Democrats pledged to reform Congress, and especially the budget
process, when they reclaimed the legislative branch in 2006, much as the Republicans promised (but ultimately failed) to do back in 1994. Yet their “solutions” for dealing with earmarks and entitlements, two especially problematic areas of spending, will do little to address the real fiscal problems facing the nation.
Real reform will come only from outside Congress.
Why are Congressional rules so doomed to fail? Congress is unable to impose fiscal discipline on itself because the Constitution gives it great leeway to make, break and even ignore its own rules. Abiding by rules often requires hard budgetary choices, and the temptation to protect funding for one’s district or state, which helps secure voters’ support back home, typically overrides any desire for fiscal discipline.
We see these principles at work right now. Earmark reform enacted this year will at best do nothing and at worst encourage pork-barrel spending because of the many loopholes written into the law that facilitate particular sorts of outlays, such as those benefiting two companies instead of one. As an end run around disclosure requirements, Democrats and Republicans also are bombarding executive agencies with letters “encouraging” them to fund
certain programs. In a letter to the Department of Energy requesting funding for an Illinois hospital and university, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a champion of the recently enacted earmark “reform,” writes, “While individual projects were not funded in the Continuing Resolution, Congress did provide your agency with ample funding and discretion to provide grants to worthy projects like the ones listed above. I hope you will carefully review and fund [these proposals].”
The Democratic solution for reforming entitlement spending is the resurrection of “pay-as-you-go” rules that expired in 2002 (at the behest of Republicans eager to cut
taxes — fiscal problems are a bipartisan creation). These rules require that any increase in entitlement spending not already authorized by the law be offset by tax increases or spending cuts. These rules are like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The threat from entitlement spending already is in the law — even if no new entitlement programs or benefits are created, the government faces a multitrillion-dollar bill in a few short decades.