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Congress can reassert authority with budget

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POSTED: March 22, 2008 5:00 a.m.
No sooner had President Bush proposed his final federal budget than commentators began suggesting it had no chance of passing Congress.
Since the most noteworthy point about the budget is that it would spend the astonishing sum of $3.1 trillion and raise the annual federal deficit to $407 billion, you'd almost think that Congress was standing up for fiscal discipline.
I only wish it were true. Actually, members of Congress don't want the anxiety that comes with responsibility for the nation's fiscal health. While they are finally showing some willingness to challenge the president, if they hold true to form they won't come up with a detailed and well-analyzed alternative. Instead, they'll just pass a "continuing resolution" to keep the funds flowing while they wait for the next president.
If so, they will have given up the chance to present an independent congressional vision for the country. The budget may be complex and unwieldy -- this year's budget documents clock in at 2,200 pages -- but it sets the government's priorities. It is the single most important document the U.S. government produces. The power of the purse given to Congress by the Constitution, in other words, is Capitol Hill's power to check the president's direction and suggest a different one.
Clearly, the nation wants this. Everywhere I go, people tell me that Congress must reassert its authority, and I agree. The budget is precisely the place to do so.
For too long, Congress has shrugged at its own power and thereby ceded it to the White House. Year after year, it has voted to spend more and tax less, and then it decries deficit spending. It has been unable to finish the appropriations bills that lay out its own priorities on time, and so has routinely passed continuing resolutions or omnibus bills rather than the carefully crafted budgets of a generation ago. The result is bad for the government and worse for the federal balance of power, since the budgetary agenda-setting that takes place is basically the president's.
To be sure, Congress has made some progress toward cutting back on "earmarks," and is to be commended for this. But eliminating an earmark doesn't eliminate the spending, only how it is allocated. Against the backdrop of Congress' far more costly habit of passing unaffordable entitlement spending and equally unaffordable tax cuts, it's only the tiniest of steps.
No Congress that really cared about fiscal responsibility would raise spending and cut revenues as Congress has habitually done. Our current deficits are unsustainable. They threaten us with potentially crippling dependence on other countries, and impose heavy bills for current spending on our children and grandchildren. Yet when Congress focuses on reform, it tends to look at questions of process: Should it cap spending on Medicare? Should it change to a biennial budget cycle? Should it give the president a line-item veto or expand his rescission authority? Should it return to its Clinton-era "pay as you go" rules, which required it to find the money for spending proposals?
While some of these may be helpful -- the "pay-go" rules did, indeed, impose a measure of fiscal discipline on Congress -- the truth is that none of them produces sound fiscal and budgetary policy, and some give even more power to the president. The fundamental money issues facing Congress don't have to do with process, they have to do with hard choices. Simply put, Congress has to make sound fiscal decisions.
Why does this matter? Partly, of course, it's the issue itself. The budget is not now, and has not been for years, in fundamental balance. Isn't there someone in Washington who is uncomfortable with a $400 billion deficit that our grandchildren will be paying off? Unfortunately, most Americans do not seem bothered by the fiscal irresponsibility. This just imposes an additional burden on Congress. Not only must it take on runaway federal spending and seek to control health-care costs, Social Security, national security spending and other generous programs, it must also tell the American people how serious the problem is, insist that deficits do matter, and work in a bipartisan way to achieve a balanced budget.
Just as important, getting control of the budget and behaving like the fiscal stewards our founders envisioned is the first step Congress must take if it is to be a co-equal branch of government. As long as it allows the power of the purse to lie elsewhere and pretends it's just along for the ride, Congress' claim to independence will ring hollow.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

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