Congress has passed three continuing resolutions since the beginning of fiscal year 2018. The third one expires Jan. 19, ending federal funding for defense and domestic programs. Given the current funding impasse, Congress can best serve the American people by adopting a continuing resolution for the remainder of the fiscal year and providing for critical defense needs through the use of the overseas contingency account, paid for with domestic spending offsets.
The fiscal 2018 budget process got off to a good start. President Trump introduced his first budget proposal in May. It included $54 billion in discretionary spending cuts to help fund national defense priorities. The House followed with a proposal of $5 billion in spending cuts — not enough, of course, but spending cuts nonetheless.
Now, however, Congress is talking about busting the Budget Control Act spending caps by hundreds of billions. Details are still being negotiated, but the essence of the deal is bad news for taxpayers. Lawmakers initially contemplated about $200 billion in spending increases over two years. Recent reporting suggests the spending hike under discussion could be magnitudes bigger.
Congressional Republicans have repeatedly run on promises to restore fiscal responsibility and get the nation’s $20 trillion-plus debt under control. Yet now that they are in charge of both chambers, their actions have fallen far short of their promises.
Granted, discretionary spending bills require bipartisan support — a 60-vote majority in the Senate. Nevertheless, Republicans drive the agenda. Rather than roll over and burden taxpayers with even more debt, they should focus on keeping spending down and eliminating inappropriate federal programs that intervene in activities better handled by the private sector or by state and local governments.
It can be done. The Heritage Foundation identified $87 billion in discretionary spending cuts available in 2018 alone. To find these savings, we asked four key questions: Would eliminating the program increase opportunity or reduce favoritism? Would the private sector do a better job financing and administering the program? Would state or local governments administer the program more effectively? Is the program wasteful or duplicative?
Where the answer was a clear “yes,” we cut the program. Congress clearly has better options than to blow through the budget caps. Even no deal is better than a bad deal. Importantly, Congress should not allow unrelated items to catch a ride on the spending bill package. Several issues have been thrown out as potential riders, including additional disaster aid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
At this point, disaster additional aid is no longer responding to a sudden, unexpected, temporary emergency need. Any bump up in aid to those affected by hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters should be fully offset by prudent spending cuts in other areas.
CHIP should be reauthorized, but not as part of the funding bill, and with two specific policy changes. First, Congress should convert CHIP funding into a defined contribution program. This would give parents the option of enrolling their children in the health plan of their choice, including employer-based coverage. Second, lawmakers should require the states to pick up a larger share of CHIP costs.
One way to do this is over time, limit the federal payment to coverage for children living at, or below, 250 percent of the federal poverty level. The vast majority of CHIP-enrolled children today are, in fact, within that income range. States wishing to support children in higher-income families are free to do so, but they should not expect federal taxpayers to foot the bill.
Congress has until March to address the DACA program. Determining the fate of those who were brought to the United States as the children of illegal immigrants will require extensive debate, and should be part of a larger discussion of how best to secure our borders and reform the legal immigration system. There is no reason to tie this complex and emotional issue to the funding deadline.
Many lawmakers seem resigned to accepting a bad budget deal to keep the government funded past Jan. 19. But breaking the Budget Control Act’s spending caps by hundreds of billions of dollars would be a wholesale abdication of their stewardship responsibilities to the American taxpayer.
The best way forward, then, is to keep appropriations negotiations separate from unrelated policy issues, such as disaster aid, CHIP and DACA, and work up a “clean” continuing resolution that provides the sorely needed increase in defense funding, with corresponding offsets in domestic spending.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 1/11/18