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The budget: Congress’s opportunity to right the ship

It’s budget season in Washington — that time of year when the president and Congress wrangle over how much to spend on each agency and how much to take from which taxpayers.

But budgets are not just about dollars and cents. They are meant to be vision statements. Budgets delineate priorities, reflect principles, clarify positions on fundamental issues, express views on the role of government and provide insights into our moral character.

{mosads}Budgets are also illustrative of our commitment to individual rights, economic freedom and prosperity. That’s why the Constitution assigns budgetary powers to the Congress rather than to the chief executive or the judiciary. Viewing Congress as the body closest to the people, the Founders assumed Congress would be the branch most zealous about maintaining those individual rights.

But that congressional commitment has frayed badly over time. Even the most cursory review of the federal government’s financial statements from the last 30 years reveals that power has shifted from individuals to Washington, that spending beyond our means has become the governmental norm and that bureaucracies have grown “too big to fail,” even when they no longer serve the interests of the people.

Over the last 30 years, federal debt held by the public has grown by an average of 7.2 percentage points per year, 2.5 points faster than nominal economic growth over the same period. While active-duty troop counts are down by hundreds of thousands, the permanent federal bureaucracy has added 230,000 employees to nondefense agencies. 

And excessive regulations have imposed needless costs on consumers and impediments to entrepreneurs — diminishing the prospects of prosperity for millions of Americans.

No single president or Congress is responsible. And no single Congress can solve every issue at once. However, the annual budget and appropriations process does give Congress an opportunity to start reversing this fiscally unsustainable, individual-rights-crushing trend. 

Congress should seize this opportunity to start remaking government so that it can be responsive to the people’s means as well as their needs, ensuring that it provides only truly necessary services and delivers them efficiently and justly.

Congress should start by writing a budget that rejects any deal that would spend more money now but promises to make up for it with savings to be realized years in the future. Such promises are seldom kept, which is why the debt keeps growing year after year.

This commonsense first step would require writing a budget that abandons last year’s budget agreement between President Obama and former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). 

That deal would raise discretionary spending by $80 billion and greenlight an additional $5.5 billion in new mandatory spending between 2016 and 2017. Yet virtually all of the “offsets” for those increases are not slated to kick in until 2025. History indicates that a more realistic estimate of when the pay-fors will take effect would be “the 12th of Never.”

To write a responsible fiscal 2017 budget, Congress should abandon arbitrary limits on defense and nondefense discretionary spending and replace them with an aggregate limit on discretionary spending. That shouldn’t be a stretch. It was promised with last year’s budget.

But the current aggregate limit is set to expire after 2021. Congress should go further and make the aggregate limit permanent in order to retrain growth in the size and scope of government.

Then, Congress will have to do the hard work it was elected to do. Lawmakers must act on their budget by passing appropriations bills that reflect the priorities of the American people. Where those priorities differ from those of the president or the minority congressional party, the body of the people must give preference to the people’s judgment.

Congress should not be shy about using the budget to hold the administration accountable. Providing fewer resources to agencies that engage in unlawful activities or power grabs is not only a responsibility, it can be remarkably salubrious for the entire bureaucracy.

In “Blueprint for Balance,” The Heritage Foundation has provided lawmakwers with all the guidance needed to write a fiscally responsible fiscal 2017 budget and the appropriations bills to implement it. The 167-page document shows how to achieve first-year savings of $80 billion in discretionary spending and $270 billion in major mandatory programs, while giving defense spending the higher priority required to handing rising global security threats.

All Blueprint budget recommendations are based on a simple principle: Congress can make the government responsive again to the people by streamlining government, reviving true federalism and giving citizens a greater say in how public resources are allocated.

The American people have lost trust in Washington, in part, because their elected representatives say one thing and do another. 

Congress must end the practice of using budget gimmicks to mask overspending and using parliamentary process to make excuses for not making progress on implementing the policies it was elected to pursue. 

By reducing debt and putting our nation’s fiscal house in order, we can produce a stronger economy and greater freedom for all Americans.

DeMint served in the Senate from 2005 to 2013. He is president of The Heritage Foundation. Winfree is director of the foundation’s Roe Institute of Economic Policy Studies.

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