Budgeting Gone Wild: Midterm Elections Matter

This is how the federal government’s budgeting and spending is supposed to work Federal Budget Process, National Priorities Project:

  • In November, December, and early January, the Executive Branch creates a proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which begins October 1 of each year. The President presents that budget to Congress sometime in January or early February.
  • Congressional committees get to work in the Spring to analyze the budget, make changes, and start work on appropriations bills. Back in the days when the government ran on a less partisan track, the Agricultural Committee, for example, could come up with a bi-partisan budget and the other committees could address their areas of responsibility: Judiciary (funding the court system), Defense, Transportation, Health & Human Services, Housing, etc.  Sometimes there wouldn’t be a bipartisan agreement and the committees would issue majority and minority reports. Those reports cited facts and figures instead of making partisan arguments without factual support (yes, this actually happened). To make decisions, the subcommittees of the Appropriations Committees of both Chambers held hearings and actually listened to the testimony of knowledgeable witnesses.
  • By October 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year, Congress has passed appropriations to fund government operations through the following year.

That’s not how things work in a highly partisan environment like the one we’ve been living in since Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 Midterm Election. We had a long government shutdown in 2013. To avoid shutdowns since then, Congress has passed frequent Continuing Resolutions (“CRs”) which extend the levels of past funding without regard to a rational analysis of whether agencies need the same funds they’ve had in the past for future operations. When they can’t even agree on CRs on an agency by agency basis, Congress resorts to “Omnibus” funding bills which no one reads and which are replete with errors and simply through trillions of dollars into the Executive Branch without Congressional oversite. The fiscal year 2015 budget was the result of a combined omnibus and continuing resolution enacted by the Republican Congress in December of 2014 — three months after the Oct. 1 fiscal year had started.

It’s only gotten worse. Republicans brought us another shutdown this year on the heels of their budget-busting tax bill in December.  Republican Rand Paul’s dramatic all-night harangue against deficits rang hollow in light of his tax vote in December; other Republicans didn’t even bother to pretend they carried about the skyrocketing national debt under their watch. Last week Republicans and Democrats agreed on a $400 billion appropriations bill and debt-limit lift that covers the next two years. While a lot of that money will be spent on important priorities like disaster relief, infrastructure, rural health centers, and education, a big chunk of it will go to an excessive and unnecessary military buildup. That happened the day after the Pentagon announced that it had no paper trail for $800 million spent by ONE of its departments. Contrast last week’s action with what Republicans did in 2011 when they refused to raise the federal debt limit until President Barack Obama agreed to deep cuts to non-military programs.

As the New York Times said on Sunday:

Deficit spending can be an indispensable tool — to revive an ailing economy,
invest in productive infrastructure, rebuild after natural disasters and pay for
unavoidable wars. And it was vital for the government to run large deficits after the
financial crisis, when the country was tumbling into the worst recession since the

But the Republican leaders who opposed stimulus spending in 2011 and 2012,
when many Americans were struggling to find jobs and the economy was in the
doldrums, are now making the absurd argument that the government ought to do
more to fuel the economy at a time when the unemployment rate is about half what
it was back then and corporate profits have soared.

That said, our military service members deserve a long-overdue raise, which was included in the compromise bill, and non-defense spending must be increased to meet real needs that have been unfunded since Republicans took control. Nondefense spending relative to the economy is the lowest it has been since 1961 — 3.1% of the gross domestic product, far below the long-term average of 3.8 %, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. There are not enough Democratic votes to do what needs to be done. Last week, the Democrats in Congress used what leverage they had to get funding for crumbling infrastructure, aid to flood victims in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and other neglected priorities.

Last week’s compromise doesn’t do enough for domestic priorities while, coming on top of the trillion-dollar tax cut, the omnibus bill will nearly DOUBLE the federal deficit by 2019. And, already this week, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is arguing the deficit that he just created requires that we cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. On top of that, this week Trump sent his proposed 2019 budget to Congress which proposes cuts to all of those programs, slashes funding for the State Department (whose purpose is to keep us out of war), chops funding for the EPA (including for Climate Change research), cuts Energy Department funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and proposes to repeal of the Affordable Care Act (again). We’ll be fighting about this plan for 2019 through the Election in November and fighting for priorities that benefit all Americans. Trump’s spending priorities reflect the priorities of Republican donors: fossil fuels and fighter jets.

Unless Democrats regain control of the House or Senate, the Republicans will succeed in the largest wealth transfer in the history of the country through their tax cuts for the rich while slashing programs for the middle class and poor. They will also inflict irreversible harm to our environment and public lands simply through misplaced budget decisions.

More recommended reading:

Non-Defense Discretionary Funding Increases Under Bipartisan Deal Yet Remains Below Earlier Levels

Trump Budget Offers Stark Vision

O’Halleran Votes For Two Year Budget Agreement



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