Budget? Why Follow A Budget?

Photo: Emily Metcalf
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Photo: Emily Metcalf

Families and businesses have budgets, yet Washington doesn’t — and it hasn’t for the last three years. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) doesn’t think this major omission is that big of a deal, and the White House has no opinion on the matter. Fortunately, there are leaders in the House who see the importance of passing a budget and getting runaway spending and escalating debt under control.

For Congress, the budget is an outline of how and where money will be spent across the federal government and how high taxes and borrowing will be. The budget guides all spending, tax, and reform bills that must be passed during the year, and Congress is obligated to pass one every year. Despite those facts — and even with a $15 trillion national debt — Senator Reid last week said, “We do not need to bring a budget to the floor this year,” disavowing the entire budgeting process — and his responsibility, right along with it.


On Wednesday, ABC’s Jake Tapper asked White House press secretary Jay Carney where the President stands on the Senate’s failure to pass a budget, particularly in light of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s statement that the lack of a budget has had an adverse effect on economic growth. Carney’s response: “Well, I don’t have an opinion to express on how the Senate does its business with regards to this issue.”

For the record, the White House has had plenty of time to formulate an opinion. For those keeping count — and The Heritage Foundation certainly is — America’s do-nothing Senate has gone 1,017 days without passing a budget, opting instead to pass a variety of continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills to keep the government running. This is just a way to pass the buck on making real decisions about spending priorities, while Washington keeps burning money at the current rate.

The trouble is, that current rate is a disaster. But, of course, Reid has an excuse for why passing a budget isn’t necessary — he says Congress already imposed a spending cap in last summer’s Budget Control Act (BCA). It’s an argument the American people shouldn’t be buying, and it’s one that Reid shouldn’t be selling. Heritage’s Patrick Knudsen explains that the BCA was nothing more than “a poor substitute for a budget resolution — a rushed, eleventh-hour ‘solution’ to a manufactured debt ceiling crisis.” And the cap that Reid is relying on? It only affects about a third of total spending and is full of deliberate loopholes that make the caps all but meaningless.

Why does a budget matter? It’s all about priorities. And if Washington doesn’t govern with one, well, it isn’t governing. Instead, Congress is avoiding the tough decisions it must make to get our twin crises of spending and debt under control. The first step to doing that is to pass a budget, like the House did last year and intends to this year. Otherwise, spending will continue to spiral out of control, and no choices will be made about what is important and what is not.

We’re already seeing the effects. Remember that “super committee” that was supposed to come up with another $1.2 trillion for deficit reduction? It failed as predicted, and now the U.S. military is threatened with devastating cuts that will render it a hollow force, unable to adequately carry out its mission. Likewise, entitlement programs are reaching the tipping point with spending set to more than double by 2050 as more and more babyboomers flood into the programs and health care costs continue to rise. As spending on entitlements and other programs spirals out of control, it will drive publicly held debt upwards of 300 percent of Gross Domestic Product. This is an untenable situation both economically and morally as younger generations will be on the front lines of paying for this mess.

There is, however, a ray of light coming out of Washington. Last year, the House passed a strong budget under House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) leadership. And it continued that work this week by speedily passing several budget process reform bills. Two of the measures would enhance transparency by helping measure the cost of legislation and by requiring the Congressional Budget Office to measure the economic impact of legislation. A bill passed last week targets one of the greatest enablers of hidden spending increases: the automatic inflation increases to discretionary spending baselines. And on Wednesday, a bipartisan bill passed with an additional tool to restrain spending. A total of ten budget process reform bills are planned.

Those are good first steps, but the rest of Washington remains out of step. Senator Reid has told the nation he will continue to shirk his budgeting responsibility. On Monday, one week late, the White House will kick off the annual budgeting process with the release of President Obama’s budget proposal. For the President’s FY 2013 budget to be serious, it will need to reverse the rise of spending and debt with specific, credible policy proposals. Another year of fig leaf proposals with more spending and higher taxes will allow Harry Reid and the Senate to pass the buck again.