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Press Release

We Need a New Budget Process

12/03/2003

Congress and the Administration are once again facing gigantic and growing deficits. There are many explanations, but unrestrained spending is the biggest. With the tallies in from the fiscal year ended September 30, spending grew by almost 9% last year and by 21% over the last two years. This is before you consider the supplemental for Iraq, the energy bill, the new entitlement for prescription drugs law, or the omnibus appropriations bill that is still being written and which Congress will consider December 8. Non-military discretionary spending, which the Administration had pledged to hold to 4% growth, actually rose 8.5% - or roughly four times as fast as inflation.

Politicians spend because of the pressure from special interests and because it buys votes even as it passes the cost to future generations. Nothing can be fixed until some heat is applied to the big spenders through the rejection of some spending bills or public pressure. But in addition, we should reform our budget process laws to put some limits on spending, and make it more embarrassing when overspending happens.

Over the years, Congress has crafted a series of bills to limit spending: three versions of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings legislation in the 1980s, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, and the Budget Enforcement Act of 1997. Each of them set spending targets for Congress enforced through automatic sequesters of spending and/or across-the-board cuts to meet the targets. Unfortunately, the limits set in 1997 expired in 2002 and have not been renewed. We should set new spending targets next year to reduce the deficit and enact new legislation that enforces across-the-board cuts.

Past sequester bills have never been strong enough to coerce compliance. Budget rules can always be overridden by new congressional enactments. The Appropriations Committee is skilled at finding loopholes, manipulating projections, and simply bribing members with pork spending. Additionally, members who don't vote for spending bills tend to have their amendments stripped from the bills. The Rules Committee frequently waives points of order designed to enforce budget rules. But it is still important to lay down markers for spending. The big spenders find it embarrassing to violate their limits and it gives budget hawks an opportunity to document the overspending as it happens. In the final analysis, I think these bills help induce at least a small amount of restraint.

Because Congress can always modify federal law, we might have to pass a constitutional amendment to truly restrain spending. Congress came within one vote in the Senate of passing a balanced budget amendment in 1996. I think that's a good idea, but I've introduced my own amendment, based on the Headlee Amendment to Michigan's Constitution, which is even better. It would restrain spending growth to the rate of growth in the economy (except in cases of war or declared national emergencies). This would prevent the creeping growth of the federal government.

People need to realize that we are in the midst of a serious budget crisis, with $500 billion and $600 billion annual deficits projected far into the future. Spending is unrestrained and is growing fast, not only on war and homeland security, but across the board. The burden for paying those debts will fall on our children and grandchildren. That's unacceptable, and I'm fighting to raise public awareness and anger about our government's shameful overspending.