Fiscal Problems Won’t Be Solved Without Courage

Posted February 25, 2005 at 4:03pm

During President Bush’s State of the Union speech he stressed the need to cut the national deficit, saying: “America’s prosperity requires restraining the spending appetite of the federal government. I welcome the bipartisan enthusiasm for spending discipline. I will send you a budget that holds the growth of discretionary spending below inflation and stays on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009.”

This call for fiscal responsibility is long overdue. While there has been a great deal of attention paid — and rightly so — to issues like homeland security in recent years, there has been an abject failure to secure the nation’s finances. Even when Congress receives a modest budget from the president it still finds a way to bloat it up with excess spending.

With every pet project tucked into a spending bill, and every irresponsible omnibus we pass, Congress is piling a mountain of debt on future generations.

It is our hope that legislation we have introduced in the Senate will provide the tools necessary for Congress to do a better job of managing the nation’s books. Our current budget process lacks careful analysis, to say the least. Instead, it is littered with partisanship and bickering for months on end and then capped by a head-long rush to bundle the spending bills together and hurriedly pass them as Congress rushes to leave town at the end of the year. More thought and deliberation needs to go into this process.

Knowing What We Owe. Before Congress sets about spending the taxpayers’ money ever year, it needs to have a clearer picture of how much the country already owes. Surprisingly enough, the federal government has billions of dollars in liabilities that Congress never takes into account when it spends money. Liabilities to federal insurance programs, such as the flood insurance program and the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, total more than $100 billion alone.

Our legislation would require the president to issue a report to Congress — before it writes the budget — on the long-term costs of proposed and continued programs. This report must include information on retirement benefit liabilities and loan interest. If Congress knew the full extent of the federal government’s liabilities, hopefully it would rein in its spending.

Having Better Budget Projections. Congress also needs a clearer picture of how its policy decisions will impact the nation’s long-term financial health. Too often annual deficit forecasts and even 10-year budget projections fall short of capturing the long-term costs of federal programs and tax provisions.

New accounting methods that better calculate these running, long-term costs are needed to assess how much policy proposals will actually cost. For example, before Members of Congress vote on pending legislation they should have more detailed information on how bills impact spending and taxes, and our bill would require that information to be provided.

Putting the Nation on a Two-Year Budget Cycle. With longer periods between budgets Congress could better consider the impact of its decisions and then plan for the best use of dollars over time. Agencies could better plan for their needs and count on more stable funding for key projects.

Enforcing PAYGO Rules. Spending caps or “Pay-As-You-Go” rules force Congress to show how it is going to pay for new programs by increasing revenue or finding offsets. Our bill would extend the discretionary spending caps and the PAYGO rules for five years and automatically require a supermajority vote (60 votes or more in the Senate) if Congress wants to circumvent them.

The longer Congress waits before it gets serious about fiscal responsibility, the heavier the burden will be for future generations. We must begin to act responsibly now, and this bill helps provide some of the backbone to get the job done. Our legacy to future generations should be an America that is secure in both its borders and its finances.

Sen. Russ Feingold is a Democrat from Wisconsin. Sen. George Voinovich is a Republican from Ohio.