William Hoagland: Congress Faces Challenging Times for American Fiscal Responsibility

G. William Hoagland is Senior Vice President at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a member of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. He previously held senior staff positions with the U.S. Senate Budget Committee and the Office of the Republican Majority Leader. He recently wrote a piece that appeared in The Hill. It is reposted here.

Washington has gone through another challenging week. The government weathered the threat of another partial shutdown. Lawmakers and staff in Congress rushed to complete funding for the current year by enacting a 2,200-page bill that few, if any, members had time to read. But with nearly half the fiscal year done and with five continuing resolutions enacted, Congress finally completed a $1.3 trillion spending bill to keep the U.S. government funded through September.

This is not how the strongest, most vibrant, democratic government in the world is supposed to function. But it seems to have become the normal way. The average annual number of continuing resolutions over the last 20 years is nearly six. It shouldn’t be this way. Members of Congress and their leaders know this is not “regular order.”

The retirement of leaders like Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), known for working to achieve compromise with members across the aisle, makes it even more important that Congress not lose sight of best practices to achieve bipartisan consensus. Congress has at least acknowledged the process needs improvement and last month created the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, a bipartisan group of House and Senate members to draft reform proposals by year end. A heavy burden has been placed on these members, but clearly a necessary one.

It was also a challenging week for the new management in the White House on the fiscal front. The unending drip of red ink on the president’s watch has resulted in a new, ignominious, record being set. A year ago, when President Trump took office, the country’s outstanding debt was not quite $20 trillion, today that figure stands at slightly over $21 trillion. It took this country from the government’s inception in 1789 until 1980 to amass $1 trillion in debt. It took President Trump working with Congress just one year to achieve that mark. The termites under the front porch continue to weaken the foundation of the country’s fiscal future.

In fairness to the Trump administration and Congress, they are not entirely responsible for one year’s $1 trillion debt explosion. As Eugene Steuerle astutely observed in his book “Dead Men Ruling,” the path to fiscal insecurity has been heavily influenced by former elected public representatives. Steuerle wrote, “Democracy itself begins to creak and function poorly when previous decisions by dead and retired policymakers effectively curtail current and future generations of the power to make their own decisions.”

While fiscal conservatives will focus on the $1.3 trillion omnibus bill as a concern, it is not the real threat to our fiscal future. After all, that spending represents only about 30 percent of the $4.3 trillion total federal spending expected this year. Indeed, the bill’s funding includes supporting our men and women in uniform and veterans, securing our borders, responding to natural disasters, and researching and find cures for current diseases and preparing for those unknown microbes yet to attack. The list goes on, but again, all this is less than one-third of total federal spending.

The fiscal challenge lies not in reducing the government’s obligations to this 30 percent, but making sure those expenditures achieve their stated goals in the most efficient and effective ways possible. Our country’s debt burden, therefore, is not driven so much by the annual, dysfunctional, appropriation process we have so recently observed, but by the long arc of policies established over the years providing retirement and health entitlement benefits to millions of Americans, while failing to balance those commitments with the revenues needed to fund them. This imbalance is a tax on future generations.

This has also been a challenging week for advocates of fiscal responsibility. A giant in that crusade, Peter Peterson, passed away. The business and public policy maven’s message, however difficult for some to accept, continues to resonate for those concerned about our fiscal future of “never, even in bad times, spending more than you earned.” His admonishment applies equally to businesses and families as it does to governments. It is sad his message has not been followed by our public officials.

When Congress returns from recess, they should begin enacting under “regular order” the 12 appropriation bills for 2019. They know their top line, which is a $1.224 trillion spending cap, so it should not take six months to fill in the details. Let’s hope that the abnormal process of the past many years is replaced by a return to what should be normal.

"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the Committee.