April 19, 2016 | Commentary on Budget and Spending, Economy

Congress Should Enact a Responsible Budget

Once again, Congress has blown right past its statutory deadline for passing a budget.

The Congressional Budget Act requires Congress to pass a budget by April 15 to begin the annual spending process for appropriations. Although the House Budget Committee introduced its fiscal year 2017 budget in March, it's never been brought to a floor vote, and prospects for an agreement on the budget look bleak.

The reason for the standoff is that lawmakers are divided over how much to spend on the discretionary budget. Should lawmakers endorse last year's Obama-Boehner agreement to increase spending by $30 billion, or should they stick to the lower level set in the Budget Control Act?

Yet this is a false dilemma. A truly conservative budget would reduce spending below the Budget Control Act level by eliminating inappropriate and duplicative government spending and by rooting out corporate welfare.

The discretionary budget governs funding for domestic agencies and programs as well as national defense. Though discretionary spending makes up only one-third of the federal budget, it's the part of the budget Congress spends the most time deliberating over. The reason is simple. Congress is forced to address this part of the budget or face a government shutdown.

So-called mandatory programs, meanwhile, are allowed to grow on autopilot based on each program's authorizing statute. If Congress forgets about these programs, most of them go on and grow regardless.

It's these mandatory programs that are most responsible for our nation's worsening fiscal condition. Four programs in particular — Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare and Social Security — account for more than half of the projected spending increases over the next decade, according to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections. Together with interest on the debt, spending on just these four programs will consume more than $8 of every additional $10 the federal government is projected to spend over the next 10 years.

The annual congressional budget is the one document in which Congress considers all federal spending and taxes. Yet it is unclear that Congress passing a budget would have made much of a difference in spending.

Last year, the House and Senate passed a gimmick-filled joint budget resolution to achieve balance before the end of the decade. But even that halting commitment to balance the budget ended with the promise. Unless and until Washington actually implements legislation to carry out the cost-cutting measures it proposes, spending and debt will keep growing on their current unsustainable trajectory.

The nation's lawmakers must break their habit of not following through on their fiscal promises — and they must do it soon. The CBO recently warned that "(i)n 10 years, debt held by the public would equal 86% of GDP — more than twice its average over the past five decades. Debt that high — and heading higher — would have significant negative budgetary and economic consequences."

This is why the current disagreement over the discretionary spending level is so important. The amount of money involved may seem trivial in the broader budget picture, but the debate is really about commitment and following through.

Last year, Congress proposed to spend $1.013 trillion on discretionary programs. Yet this year's House budget proposal came in $57 billion higher, at $1.070 trillion. America can no longer afford to keep falling deeper in red ink while promising to lower spending "next year, for sure."

The Heritage Foundation's "Blueprint for Balance" presents a truly conservative budget to put America back on the right fiscal path. It balances the budget in seven years with spending cuts and entitlement reforms, while cutting taxes and funding defense priorities to meet security threats across the globe.

Lawmakers should not wait for a full-blown fiscal crisis to enact a responsible budget. There's no time like today to show the American people that they can make good on their promises and get spending under control.

Romina Boccia is deputy director of the Heritage Foundation's Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies and the Grover M. Hermann Research Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs.

About the Author

Romina Boccia Deputy Director, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies and Grover M. Hermann Research Fellow
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Originally appeared in the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel