By Jo Comerford
See author’s note (below) for updates.
Americans deserve representatives in Congress who take seriously their role as stewards of the people’s business. We deserve a federal budget that reflects Americans’ priorities for how our tax dollars are spent. Unfortunately, Congress seems determined to give us neither.
Earlier this month, lawmakers missed yet another federal budget deadline, this one set by congressional appropriators as “the very latest” date that the congressional budget conference committee could go without producing topline budget numbers. If the committee couldn’t reach agreement by December 2, appropriators warned, we would face “extremely damaging repercussions,” including:
- the risk of another government shutdown in early 2014;
- inability to stop further cuts to critical federal programs via sequestration; and
- the need to budget by continuing resolution – an outcome that would virtually wipe the slate clean of the budgeting work done by Congress so far this year.
Of course, this isn’t the first budget deadline missed by Congress this fall. In October, Congress failed to pass appropriations bills on time, leading to a government shutdown lasting more than two weeks. These are only the most recent examples in a decade-long pattern of budgetary irregularities, where continuing resolutions, often created behind closed doors in secretive negotiations, take the place of open, accountable appropriations processes. Sitting on top of this dysfunction is the sequester, itself the result of another missed deadline, chewing away at public services and infrastructure through across-the-board cuts.
To add insult to injury, this Congress also earned the distinction of the least productive Congress in US history. Fewer than 60 public laws were passed prior to December. That’s even lower than the number of laws passed by the Republican Congress during 1995 under President Clinton. Instead of focusing their time on a spending and revenue plan, our lawmakers passed a bill specifying the size of commemorative coins for the Baseball Hall of Fame. The 113th Congress hasn’t even agreed on how to fund the Pentagon, a part of the budget lawmakers are usually eager to support. When this Congress cannot get its act together even to fund the military industrial complex in this country, something is wrong.
What’s going on here? It is as if Congress thinks that the American people are not paying attention, and thus they can do whatever they want with taxpayers’ money. Partisan political games, backroom deals and deafness to the preferences of constituents has led to unconscionable gridlock and a federal budget largely out of balance with the people’s priorities.
Here’s some bad news for Congress: The American people are paying attention, and they do not like what they see. The most recent poll from The Economist/YouGov shows a catastrophic 6 percent approval rating for Congress. Six percent. Compared to Congress, people prefer toe fungus, zombies or jury duty (no joke), according to another poll by Public Policy Polling. It took throwing people like Charles Manson and Vladimir Putin into the mix for Public Policy Polling to find someone less popular than Congress.
For their part, Congress better start paying attention. According to an October Rasmussen poll, 78 percent of Americans would vote to get rid of every member of Congress and start from scratch.
At National Priorities Project, we have two major suggestions for Congress: Start listening to the American people and recommit to an appropriations process that solicits and honors their input.
Listening to the American People
Congress members may have a hard time agreeing on whether the sky is blue these days, but Americans tend to agree on a surprising number of priorities. Four issues in particular rise to the top of their list: securing Social Security, closing corporate tax loopholes, reducing military spending and containing health-care costs.
Securing Social Security. Despite more than a decade of repeated “sky is falling” rhetoric on this critical public program, voters show little interest in reducing Social Security benefits, preferring in large majorities to raise taxes if needed over reducing benefits. It’s easy to see why: Social Security keeps almost half of elderly Americans out of poverty. Lawmakers should listen to the American people and eliminate the $113,700 limit on earnings subject to Social Security taxes to help preserve the program for future generations.
Closing Tax Loopholes for the Wealthy and Corporations. Sixty-six percent want tax loopholes closed for wealthy Americans so the revenue can be used to shrink the federal budget deficit, and 80 percent of Americans want tax loopholes for big corporations closed. Overall, Americans don’t think it’s fair that tax breaks for offshore corporate income cost the government $42 billion last year alone. The capital gains tax break, which primarily benefits the very wealthy, cost $83 billion. Congress should close or modify these breaks to provide more revenue for public services and infrastructure.
Reducing Military Spending. The United States will spend an astounding $653 billion on the military in 2014, more than 56 percent of the entire discretionary budget. In fact, yearly US military spending exceeds that of the next 13 nations combined. It’s no wonder that, on average, Americans want to cut military spending by 18 percent. Congress should heed the advice of the bipartisan task force that found $1 trillion in fat over the next 10 years hiding in the Pentagon budget – and start cutting.
Contain Health-Care Costs. The cost of health care consistently tops Americans’ list of concerns when asked by pollsters, and some estimates show that up to one-third of health-care spending is wasted. Congress should explore laying groundwork for systems such as “bundled payments,” where health-care providers receive payments for overall patient care rather than for each procedure or test. Doing so can cut costs by as much as 15 to 20 percent.
These four priorities represent critical areas of agreement among Americans, but they are hardly unique. Take a look at just how broad the consensus on federal spending and revenue actually is in this country:
- 95 percent of Americans say restoring jobs is a top priority.
- 88 percent of Americans say preserving the long-term stability of Medicare is essential.
- 75 percent of Americans oppose cuts to SNAP.
- 83 percent of Americans oppose cuts to K-12 education.
- *56 percent of Americans want to see a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
In the face of these clearly stated budget priorities, it is incredible that Congress is gripped with such dysfunction that it cannot even keep the government open on a consistent basis, much less deliver a budget plan for the American people. One of the most critical symptoms of this dysfunction is the broken appropriations process, which absolutely must be remedied if the priorities described above are to be translated into law.
Get Appropriations Back on Track
For the past decade, not once has Congress passed all 12 appropriations bills on time. Most recently, this failure caused the government shutdown this past October. One of the most corrosive effects of this ongoing budget breakdown is an over-reliance on continuing resolutions, the fallback method of budgeting where Congress takes last year’s budget, makes some token adjustments, and puts a new date on it. You might be wondering: Why is this a bad thing? Why should we care if Congress just updates last year’s work? Well, there are a number of reasons why this isn’t smart budgeting.
First, budgeting by continuing resolution prevents needed adjustments to cut waste and create efficiencies. If a program created in 2012 is set up improperly, using the 2012 budget as the 2013 budget keeps you from fixing it properly – you just move forward with the broken program for another year. When you combine this with the lazy, across-the-board cuts from sequestration, you get a federal budget optimized for breakdown.
Second, budgeting by continuing resolution short-circuits the accountability of the federal budget process.
In a predictable budget process, Congress would pass a budget authorization bill after constructing it in the House Budget Committee and its various subcommittees. That authorization would be used as a framework for 12 different appropriations bills, which themselves would be created in the House Appropriations Committee and its various subcommittees. The bills would be brought to the floor of each House of Congress for a vote, and then a conference committee would convene to reconcile the two chambers’ work into a single bill. That bill would be voted on by the House and Senate and sent to the president for his signature. At each step along the way, from the earliest subcommittee hearings to the final decision by the president on whether to sign the bill or not, citizens would be able to weigh in and make their opinions known.
By contrast, consider what has happened in recent years. Say you took a few of the opportunities to weigh in during the appropriations process described above. Your congressperson and senator took your opinions into account when working to influence the content of the budget. But then, imagine Congress ran out of time and did not pass that bill, and in the rush to pass something just to keep the government open, they simply discard this year’s budget work, copy their work from last year and negotiate changes to it behind closed doors. Your input has now been erased, along with your optimism for the democratic process. Budgeting by continuing resolution in this way replaces what should be an open, transparent and accountable process with a secretive – and frankly, ineffective – back-room deal.
When Congress works this way, who can blame the American people for wanting to send them all back home and give someone else a chance?
The Clock Is Ticking
Having missed the Dec. 2 date for reporting a top-line budget number for appropriators to work with, the budget conference committee is in real trouble. Under the agreed-to framework that ended the last government shutdown, the conference committee has until Dec. 13 – just over a week – to finish its work. If they fail, we could face a repeat of the budget and debt-ceiling fiasco of this past year.
With their constituents so united in a vision of what our country should prioritize over the coming year, it would truly be an incredible abdication of responsibility if Congress were to fail again to keep our government running with a budget that reflects our values.
Will Congress slip from being less popular than toe fungus to being less popular than serial killers and dictators? We are about to find out.
Give Congress a push: Sign our petition at http://bit.ly/RyanMurrayPetition.
Author’s Update: On Tuesday, Dec. 10, the budget conference committee released The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 — otherwise known as the top-line spending numbers for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. While this release is an important step in the work to stabilize a nation plagued by crisis budgeting, it must also be seen as a missed opportunity for Congress to budget in line with broadly held national priorities.