February 23, 2005

February 23, 2005 | Commentary on Federal Budget

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of February 21st

Two prominent Republican members of Congress, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, teamed up with Clay Johnson, a senior White House official, last week to discuss a creative new policy idea that, if adopted, would set Congress on a more fiscally prudent course. Their mission: find an effective way to force Congress to confront the reality that many federal programs are outright failures, and then do something about it.

President Bush has proposed the creation of results commissions and sunset commissions that would thoroughly review specific areas of federal activity--such as the hundreds of programs that purport to provide job training to the unemployed--and then send Congress specific recommendations to consolidate, restructure or terminate them. Congress would be required to translate the commissions' recommendations into legislative form and then vote up or down on the entire package in an expedited manner. Grouping together into one bill recommendations that could affect dozens or even hundreds of ineffective programs (and all under a process that precludes special interests from picking them apart one program at a time) would increase the odds that Congress will actually jettison failed programs.

The growing interest in this plan reinforces the sense among conservatives on Capitol Hill that the tide has finally turned in the great spending wars. While the battle to restrain the federal behemoth remains an uphill one, there are some positive signs:

  • The President has proposed eliminating 99 programs. If adopted, taxpayers would realize savings of $8.8 billion in 2006.
  • For an additional 55 programs, the President has proposed significant reforms that, taken together, would save taxpayers an additional $6.5 billion in 2006.
  • The President wants to restrain the growth of several entitlement programs, to the tune of $7.3 billion in 2006 and $137 billion over the next 10 years.

The driving force behind the President's recommendations is a little-known program run by the Office of Management and Budget known as PART or "Program Assessment Rating Tool." Under PART, White House auditors oversee an exhaustive review of federal programs. The auditors ask three fundamental questions of each program: 1) Does it meet the nation's priorities?; 2) Is there an appropriate federal role for it that justifies the use of taxpayer dollars?; and, 3) Does it work?

In its third year, PART's track record has been disappointing. Last year, the President sent Congress a modest recommendation to cut $1.1 billion from 14 programs rated "ineffective" or "results not demonstrated." Left to the tender mercies of the appropriations process, these programs attracted the legislative equivalent of cardiopulmonary resuscitation as lobbyists rallied to breathe life--i.e., taxpayer dollars--into these failed enterprises. The result: Congress cut a minuscule $41 million from these programs.

This year, defenders of failed programs face a White House determined to press much more aggressively for these cuts, as well as a growing phalanx of House and Senate conservatives who want to reverse the rising tide of federal spending. Last week, the White House released a 237-page document that provides detailed justifications for each proposed cut. High-ranking White House officials, meanwhile, have been tasked to appear before congressional committees and work closely with Hill leaders to identify those programs on the White House list most likely to elude the organized efforts of special interests and be terminated.

Blue Dog Budget

The Blue Dogs, a caucus of 35 moderate House Democrats, unveiled its own budget reform plan last week. Though several provisions will provoke disagreement with conservative Republicans, the number of areas of agreement prompted some budget watchdogs to sense the potential for bipartisan cooperation.

Drafted in large part by Rep. Jim Cooper (D.-Tenn.), the plan proceeds from an assumption shared by conservative budget experts that "the only way to get our nation's fiscal house in order is to fundamentally change the way Congress budgets taxpayer dollars." The plan includes:

  • A constitutional amendment to balance the budget;
  • Resurrection of the Pay-As-You-Go rule requiring spending increases or tax cuts to be "offset" by spending cuts or tax increases;
  • Limits on the growth of discretionary spending (about one-third of the budget) to 2.1% per year;
  • Freezing the budgets of the seven federal agencies that cannot balance their books; and
  • Reforms designed to bring more transparency to the budgeting process, including requiring members of Congress to provide written justifications for earmarked spending.

 
Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events