President Barack Obama’s penultimate budget will be delivered to Congress Monday. Per the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, the president’s budget will enumerate recommended spending levels for nearly every federal program, project and activity.
If past is prologue, the budget’s many thick volumes will land with a thud.
The Republican-controlled Congress is all but certain to treat Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget as dead on arrival. This nose-thumbing has been the tradition in Congress for years, regardless of party.
To say the nation’s budget process is not working is a gross understatement. It is a wreck. By law, Congress is supposed to adopt a budget by April 15 each year, and then appropriate the budgeted amounts before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.
In reality, Congress seldom completes those tasks on time, and in recent years, it often has not adopted a budget at all. Omnibus spending legislation and last-minute continuing resolutions have instead become the norm. To the disgust of the public and the financial markets, our country has twice in recent years seen multi-week shutdowns of the federal government due to this dysfunction.
Eventually, Congress will need to rethink the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, which aimed to create an orderly, timely and predictable process for financing the government. But in the meantime, there is something Congress could do that would be easy and beneficial: pass the president’s “kill list.”
Formally known as “terminations, reductions and savings to discretionary spending,” the kill list is a collection of antiquated, failed and needless expenditures. This past year, the president proposed more than 130 cuts that would save $17 billion annually. Nearly every federal agency had something on the block. Health and Human Services’ $50 million a year Access to Recovery initiative was to be zeroed out. Spending on the Defense Department’s troubled ground combat vehicle program was to be halved. Some 250 Department of Agriculture facilities would have been closed.
Admittedly, these proposed cuts amounted to a small snip — $17 billion of the mammoth $3.8 trillion federal budget. But find $17 billion here and $17 billion there, and eventually, you’re talking about real money. Moreover, there’s nothing to stop a president from producing a kill list that would produce even bigger savings.
Obama’s latest budget will include yet another kill list. Rather than treat it as a dead letter, Congress should put the list’s contents into a bill and grant it floor time for a straight up-or-down vote.
Voting to enact the kill list would be a win-win-win maneuver. The president would get a few of the cuts he desires. The Republican Congress could immediately demonstrate to the public it can work in a bipartisan manner. The public, not to be forgotten, would win by saving some of its wasted tax dollars.
Enacting this year’s kill list should not be a one-shot deal. Rather, Congress should make voting on the presidential kill list an annual exercise. It should send the president a simple statute requiring a prompt deadline (say, 10 days) for Congress to vote on the kill list under expedited procedures, as it does with some trade deals and military base closures.
If recent decades have shown us anything, it’s that Congress has a hard time controlling its spending. In the mid-1990s, Congress was so ashamed of its financial irresponsibility that it enacted a line-item veto. President Bill Clinton used it to kill many programs until 1998, when the Supreme Court quashed the mechanism as unconstitutional.
Enacting an annual kill list process would take a small step toward responsible budgeting. Like the line-item veto, an annual kill list process would empower the executive to help Congress be a more responsible steward of the public’s tax dollars. But it would achieve this objective without giving away Congress’ constitutional authority.
Kevin R. Kosar is the director of the governance project and a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.