Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas was chosen last month to replace a fellow Republican, Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee, as chairman of the House Budget Committee. With fiscal 2018 appropriations yet to be finalized, Womack finds himself in an uncertain position.
If a deal is reached to raise the Budget Control Act caps for 2019, some of his fellow Republicans might not want to do a budget. That would be a failure. While nonbinding, the budget resolution sets out important policy initiatives and paves the way for reconciliation, a powerful tool to making meaningful reform a reality.
Here are five principles that Womack should follow in his fiscal 2019 budget:
1. Release a fiscal 2019 budget resolution: Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reports that Womack is considering skipping out on producing a budget resolution this year.
After Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., became budget chairman in 2011, the committee released a budget resolution every year. The budget and appropriations process is one of the fundamental duties charged to Congress by the Constitution and mandated by the 1974 budget act.
Taxpayers expect and deserve a transparent budget process to take place every year. If the House fails to produce a budget this year, it will only deepen the dysfunction that currently rules federal spending.
2. Balance in 10 years: The federal debt is currently more than $20.6 trillion and projected to rise by at least another $10 trillion in the coming decade. Now more than ever, Congress must pass a budget that balances in 10 years.
Doing so will require bold reforms, however, and abandoning that goal will lead to more spending and hasten the path toward impending fiscal disaster.
3. Implement mandatory reforms through reconciliation: Reconciliation is perhaps the most powerful legislative tool available to Congress. It allows legislation to pass the Senate by a simple majority vote, instead of the 3/5 vote threshold. Late last year, it was used to pass the most meaningful tax reform package in decades. However, reconciliation cannot proceed without a budget resolution.
Mandatory spending programs are the biggest drivers of the federal debt. The fiscal 2018 House budget called for more than $200 billion in mandatory savings through reconciliation (which were ultimately removed by the Senate).
Womack should build on last year’s budget and recommend even greater savings in 2019. That would go a long way toward balancing the budget and putting it on a sustainable long-term path. Why would Congress squander an opportunity to use this powerful tool?
4. Balance without budget gimmicks and unspecified savings: Far too often, budgets and other legislation that come before Congress rely on gimmicks to balance or “pay for” the associated costs. These gimmicks create a false picture of the true impact of legislation, and in reality help feed Congress’ spending addiction.
In addition to gimmicks, past budgets have included hundreds of billions of dollars in savings from “allowances.” While there are some cross-cutting proposals that don’t fit into a particular agency or program, far too often these allowances are a plug for unspecified savings used to balance the budget.
Putting forth concrete policy proposals will make real reform more likely than phony savings created to hit a numbers target.
5. Include reforms to fix the broken budget process: Currently, the federal government is operating under its fourth continuing resolution of 2018, with another looming in the coming days. Clearly, the budget process is broken.
There are any number of reforms that Womack should propose to start repairing and creating a more effective and accountable budget process. Among these reforms: a spending cap limiting the federal budget, enforced by sequestration; a balanced budget amendment; the elimination of unauthorized appropriations; and revising budget scorekeeping rules to more accurately account for interest and other costs.
Congress has less than two and a half months left to meet its statutory budget deadline for fiscal 2019. That means Womack must get to work immediately at crafting his proposal.
The budget is more than just a policy vision. It provides a powerful opportunity to push forward meaningful legislative reforms. Not producing a budget would be disastrous.
The American people deserve a functioning budget process, and Congress cannot waste any more time in implementing reforms.