Budget Deficit Must Be a Priority

With the start of the new fiscal year just days away — and only two of the 12 annual appropriations bills signed into law — the Senate will again face a mad scramble to complete its appropriations business. But despite the honest and good faith efforts of the Appropriations Committee’s leadership, we can forget about getting our work done on time. Instead, we will likely see a big omnibus appropriations bill. Once again, the process has gotten seriously off track.

Beyond the immediate task of completing the fiscal 2006 bills, though, there is other “unfinished” appropriations business that must be addressed. Specifically, Members of Congress need to get serious about confronting the growing crisis in the budget and appropriations process.

We have the largest budget deficit in history, sitting on top of the largest trade deficit in history, neither one of which is going to evaporate on its own. At some point both Congress and the White House are going to have to put aside their political party labels and accept responsibility for crafting fiscal policies that face our current situation straight on and provide for the future of this nation.

But we can’t begin to accomplish that if we are unwilling to face reality — and unwilling to focus on both sides of the ledger.

Step one in that process will have to be coming to grips with the fact that dramatically increasing expenditures on two wars, homeland security — and now recovering from Hurricane Katrina — while at the same time cutting taxes, mostly for the wealthy, is creating serious and long-term fiscal problems for this country.

The days of playing “let’s pretend” with our budget and fiscal policies must end. Those policies have real consequences. No amount of wishful thinking can “will” those consequences away. Our current policies are creating burdens that will be with us — and also on the backs of our children — for decades.

Second, we also need to recognize that there are real and legitimate needs all across this country that are not being met. The budgets of the many departments and bureaus of our government are stretched thin, too thin in my opinion. They’re not going to get any better by relying on rhetorical platitudes about fraud, waste and abuse.

In short, we need to rethink a number of fiscal priorities. We do not have unlimited revenues, so we need to make sure the choices we make reflect common sense and what is really important. For example, as we rebuild from the greatest natural disaster in our country’s history and finance two wars, do more tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans, really reflect our national priorities and deserve the urgency the White House and majority party in Congress give them? Few Americans I know think so.

As we restructure our priorities, all Senators — and thereby all Americans — should have their voice heard. That’s not the way things have been working in recent years in Congress.

Why, for example, isn’t the Appropriations Committee allowed to bring the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill to the floor of the Senate? It wasn’t brought up last year, and I’m willing to bet it won’t come up for debate again this year, either. The answer, of course, is that the Senate’s majority party is not willing to face a multitude of amendments — including amendments offered from their side of the aisle — demanding more money for job training, education or health care research. That’s not on their agenda. So it’s not going to happen.

Another example, and a classic illustration of how ridiculous this process is becoming, is the Defense Authorization Act. It used to be that authorizing legislation was a required pre-requisite for appropriations. Yet, this year — in the middle of a war — the Senate is not even going to be allowed to vote on the Defense Authorization bill. Why? Because the majority party doesn’t want to have to vote on an amendment offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), which would set standards and guidelines for treatment of prisoners of war held by the U.S. military.

Does anyone think refusing to allow a war-time Senate to consider and vote on the Defense Authorization bill makes sense? In fact, there is something very wrong about that.

Refusing to allow the full Senate to work on bills because some of the expected debate and possible amendments don’t fit neatly on the majority party’s agenda is not exactly facing reality. Nor is it being honest with the American people who expect the give and take of real democracy and democratic debate to decide these questions.

The costs associated with Hurricane Katrina are expected to approach $200 billion. The president said, “You bet it will cost money, but I’m confident we can handle it.” Well, exactly how, Mr. President, do we handle it? Do we just add another $200 billion to the deficit, which means passing it along to our children? Do we cut $200 billion in other spending? And if we do cut, where do the cuts come?

Confidence is a great thing to have. But it doesn’t answer the vital question of how we address the many serious needs facing this country. We can’t wish away budget deficits.

On the contrary, it’s time that federal lawmakers stare truth straight in the eye. We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. I believe the American people are demanding that their elected officials — in Congress and the White House — stop playing “let’s pretend” with our budgets, our appropriation bills and with our tax policy.

At the core of our “unfinished” appropriations business lies a return to budget and spending reality, straight talk with the American people, and hard choices, not slick dodges made possible by accounting gimmicks and budgetary sleight of hand.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is a member of the Appropriations Committee.