Enough of our budget farce
he Trump administration’s new budget is fake news. That isn’t because it fails to live up to its grandiose title: “A Budget for a Better America: Promises Kept. Taxpayers First.” Nor is it a function of any particular defect, though no doubt there are plenty. Rather, it is simply a reflection of what our budget process has become: all messaging, no planning.
These days, all budgets—both presidential and congressional—are basically tools for signaling loyalty to a party’s political base. Whatever fiscal compromises are struck come in spite of these documents, not because of them. Year after year, Congress winds up funding the government through continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills that maintain past levels of spending instead of making responsible choices with an eye to the long term. Along the way, the possibilities of government shutdowns or even debt-limit-induced default add some excitement, and even some real risk of disaster. But the endpoint—continuation of our massive deficit spending, with barely any efforts made to address the main long-term drivers of the nation’s indebtedness—is basically a foregone conclusion.
It’s time to try something different.
There are a number of ambitious ideas currently gaining momentum on Capitol Hill which would entirely reshape the way spending choices are made. They will meet determined resistance from those who are invested in pieces of the current system. For example, both parties know that the budgets they produce are only vaguely connected with spending choices, and in fact in many years they don’t bother to produce them. (It appears the House will not attempt to pass one this year.) But the budget reconciliation process still provides a potent tool for the Senate majority, making both parties reluctant to abandon joint resolutions entirely.
To take another case, there is little to be said in defense of the current role of the debt ceiling—logically, it makes no sense to set levels of spending and levels of taxation and then cry foul at the incursion of debt; no other country manages its debt in this way. But fiscal conservatives are loath to part with the opportunity provided by the debt limit to warn the public of an impending disaster brought on by the burgeoning national debt. They are likely to block any reform that makes it too easy to simply remove debt from the agenda, especially given the rising chorus that says that deficits just don’t matter.
In spite of the obstacles, there is a deal here waiting to be made, born out of the shared conviction that the process as it exists today is a failure, both in terms of smoothly facilitating annual fiscal decision-making and reasonably looking after the country’s fiscal health for the next generation. What is needed is a reboot that requires legislators to deliberate seriously about debt, in a way that both parties recognize as being in good faith, thereby liberating us from our tendency to bounce from one crisis to the next.
Two reform ideas, in particular, are worth examining: getting rid of the budget committees and process as they currently exist, and collapsing the longstanding separation of authorizing and appropriating functions. Both would be radical departures from the current process, and it is impossible to be sure how they would function in practice. But there are reasons to believe each would create a system with far more serious deliberation surrounding spending choices than we currently get.
|Topics:||Budget & Appropriations|