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Congressional Chaos: Why It’s Time for a Real Budget

Apr 19, 2024 by AFP

Déjà vu alert: Last month, Congress scrambled to pass a $1.2 trillion-dollar spending deal to prevent a government shutdown. The last time Washington was forced to vote for a similar deal was *checks notes* just a few weeks before that. 

For years, Congress has played this absurd and unproductive game of chicken. They fail to fund the government on time, spend months kicking the can down the road, and are forced to hastily vote for a massive omnibus bill to prevent a shutdown.  Then, they prepare to repeat the whole dance next year.

This is not how the federal government should work.

When we elect our representatives, we are hiring them to tackle the country’s complex issues. Instead of doing that, Congress lurches from one crisis to another, procrastinating and improvising.

We deserve a Congress that manages the government’s finances as carefully as we all take our households’. To achieve this, we need to upgrade a flawed and complicated federal budgeting process.

Here are some of the policies that could help Congress put the federal government back on a fiscally responsible path:

Washington created shutdowns. Washington can stop them.

Going from a shutdown crisis to a shutdown crisis was not the norm. In fact, the first government shutdown happened in 1981, almost two hundred years after America adopted the Constitution. The Carter Administration – not Congress – created shutdowns out of thin air.

The possibility of shutdowns is a glitch, not a feature, in the matrix of the U.S. government’s constitutional system.

Shutdowns cost taxpayers billions of dollars, as lawmakers are forced to blindly vote for gigantic omnibus bills that add billions to the national debt simply to avoid or end a government shutdown.

There is a way out of this. The bipartisan, bicameral Prevent Government Shutdown Act would end shutdowns by:

  • Keeping current spending in place when Congress and the president have not passed new appropriations bills.
  • Requiring Congress to stay in session every day until they get appropriations passed. No appropriations completion, no recess.
  • Bringing a more deliberative and inclusive budgeting process that helps reduce wasteful spending.

Congress: It’s time for a real budget

Shocking as it might sound, Congress, the branch of the government with the power of the purse, does not have a real budget. It never has.

Instead of passing a single bill with all sources of income and expenditure, Congress passes 12 different spending bills — appropriations —that fund just 26% of the federal government’s annual expenditures. The rest of government spending is automatically spent without any regular opportunity for Congress to manage it. Moreover, the appropriation bills don’t say a word about the revenue needed to pay for them or the tax preferences that reduce revenue, often for special interests.

The disparate and incoherent budgeting process makes it easier for the government to overspend and remain unaware of the true scope of its fiscal decisions. Tradeoffs are hard to see.

There is a simple way to get Congress’s housekeeping in order. It needs a single budget bill that includes all spending and revenue—a comprehensive budget.

The Comprehensive Congressional Budget Act of 2024 would:

  • Consolidate all 12 appropriation bills, direct (“mandatory”) spending, and revenue programs into one single federal budget bill
  • Leverage the knowledge of committees with spending and revenue authority by including their contributions in the annual budget bill.
  • Ensure Congress better understands the scope of federal activities, giving lawmakers the tools and information to put the country’s finances back in order while strengthening Congress’ internal democratic deliberations.

Taking this step would help Congress control excessive spending and debt while empowering all members to more effectively serve the American people.

Congress needs budget targets now

Congress needs reasonable and practical targets to balance the federal budget. While federal legislators have tried to fix this imbalance before, they have failed miserably, leaving American taxpayers with a colossal $34 trillion national debt.

Annual budget balancing is not the answer to our fiscal problems. Revenue is too volatile. Balancing each year would encourage the government to overspend during economic booms and raise taxes during economic crises, harming the economy and driving instability in fiscal policies.

A better approach is for Congress to finally adopt better budget targets , balancing the budget over the medium term while allowing for adjustments in cases of emergencies or economic crises. Adopting the policy would:

  • Establish medium-term debt-to-GDP budget targets, which bring much-needed stability and responsibility to America’s fiscal policies over business cycles.
  • Provide a gradual transition from today’s enormous deficits to balance to give Congress enough time to get its finances in order.
  • Encourage Congress to move toward embracing surpluses during times of economic prosperity, which would offset deficits during recessions or emergencies.

Putting an end to costly shutdowns, streamlining our byzantine budgeting process, and setting reasonable budget targets will ensure Washington is working full-time on delivering better value for the American people.

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