Give two U.S. senators credit for trying to do something about the smoke-and-mirrors games in Washington.
The Honest Budget Act by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, goes to the heart of public distrust of Congress, namely the dishonest budget gimmicks and accounting tricks.
The public is rebelling because too many “budget cuts” have turned out to be spending increases or, at best, promises that a future Congress will curtail spending.
By no means does the senators’ legislation fix all the problems, but it’s definitely a good start. They take aim at what they calculate are $350 billion in gimmicks used during recent years, by both political parties. Their checklist includes:
- No budget, no spending. It’s been over two years since the Senate has adopted a budget plan. The proposal is to prevent any new spending whenever an overall budget has not been approved by Congress.
- Quit crying wolf. So-called “emergency spending” is exempted from budgetary limits, so they propose that any claimed emergency must have supermajority approval. (As The Heritage Foundation has noted, “routine expenditures [are] given the emergency designation simply to evade spending caps.”)
- No phony piggy bank raids. We have hundreds of billions in unspent money that was appropriated in prior years — $703 billion was the total at the start of fiscal year 2011. Rather than canceling those old, unused, and unnecessary obligations from prior years, Congress re-directs them to new spending that is then exempted from normal spending limits. The proposal would curtail the practice.
- A freeze should be a freeze. Remember President Barack Obama’s claims last year that federal workers’ pay has been frozen for two years? The claim is phony, because of backdoor “step increase” adjustments that have averaged 2-3 percent increases. Under the plan, those would be frozen until 2013.
- No time games. Billions of dollars of revenue and spending have been “deemed” to occur a day earlier or later, so that they’re credited to a different federal fiscal year. The IRS won’t let taxpayers ignore the actual calendar, so Congress shouldn’t either.
The Sessions-Snowe plan is good. As they say, the goal is, “No more gimmicks, tricks, or empty promises. America deserves an honest budget.”
Their plan will not, however, curtail all of Washington’s huge bag of tricks. Many more are described in a Heritage guide, “Things You Never Knew About Appropriations — But Should.”
And even if Congress fixes its process, that won’t fix the rhetoric — the false claims that are routinely made about the contents of spending bills. But the longest journey begins with a single step, and the senators’ plan would start that journey on the right foot.
Former Congressman Istook is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
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