March 16, 2005

March 16, 2005 | WebMemo on Federal Budget

House Lawmakers Should Enforce Their Own Budget

With federal spending topping $20,000 per household and the budget deficit surging past $400 billion, the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) and the more moderate Tuesday Group have joined together in an effort to ensure that lawmakers keep their promises to rein in federal spending. They seek to close loopholes that currently make it easy for the House of Representatives to discard any spending ceilings that may prove inconvenient.

Annual budget resolutions are intended to cap spending, and set a framework for appropriators and authorizers to work within. These ceilings are enforced by a point of order. However, the House Rules Committee is allowed to waive these points of order with a "special rule," and majority party lawmakers who oppose these special rules face enormous pressure to conform.

Consequently, the Rules Committee can easily break Congress' own budget rules. Restrictions that can be bypassed so easily cease to be restrictions. Not surprisingly, this has become a regular occurrence, and discretionary spending is rising 11 percent annually.

The RSC and the Tuesday Group want to give individual lawmakers the ability to enforce the budgets they pass by requiring that the full House of Representatives require a separate vote to waive budget points of order. Lawmakers seeking to bust their own budget would be forced to go on the record with their preference. This is similar to the Senate, where budget rules are not only enforced by floor votes; they also require a three-fifths supermajority, rather than a simple majority, to bypass.

The RSC/Tuesday Group proposal is vital to budget control.  Budget restraints without strong enforcement are paper tigers. Restraints are intended to force Congress to make some difficult trade-offs in order to preserve the nation's long-term economic health. However, lawmakers typically take the easy path of seeking loopholes that bypass restraints, thus avoiding difficult choices. Consequently, rules are only as strong as their weakest link.

Critics suggest that requiring a separate vote to bypass the budget resolution would force Congress into embarrassing votes. That's exactly the point. Lawmakers willing to enforce their own budgets have nothing to fear. Lawmakers who do not trust themselves to keep their budgetary promises owe it to the American people to be up front about their reversals, and record their change of heart in a House vote.

The current House budget resolution is the toughest and most responsible in years. After years of steep increases, non-defense discretionary spending would actually decrease by 1 percent. Defense spending is held to a reasonable spending increase. Lawmakers are proposing using the reconciliation process to reform runaway entitlement spending for the first time since 1997. Whether this represents a commitment to real reform or a public relations ploy depends on lawmakers' willingness to enforce the budget. Requiring a recorded vote to bypass the budget would show Americans that Congress is serious about spending control.

Brian Riedl  is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs, and Keith Miller is a Research Assistant, in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Brian M. Riedl Grover Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Federal Budget