How to fix the broken budget

NBC/WSJ poll on 2016 elections
NBC/WSJ poll on 2016 elections   

You've heard it countless times: the federal government has a budget problem. Before this warning falls yet again on deaf ears, let me show you why this serious problem can't be taken lightly — and what we can do fix it.

Congress is required by law to pass a budget each fiscal year which lays out the framework for allocating taxpayer dollars for all federal programs. Additionally, Congress must pass 12 function and program –related appropriations bills that then distribute the funds to the various departments, agencies, and programs.

Unfortunately, within the current political climate of heightened partisanship and increased influence of advocacy groups, fewer than 10 percent of appropriations and budget bills are passed on time.

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Instead, Congress and the administration have relied on last-minute continuing resolutions (CRs) and omnibus spending bills that kick the can down the road by adopting only set levels of funding — providing no oversight over the worthiness of program spending, nor prioritizing spending according to our country's needs.

This "governing by crisis," or better yet "governing by neglect," has led to hundreds of seemingly temporary programs — whose mission has ended — being forever left on the books and funded past their usefulness. Outside advocacy groups have figured out that if they can hold up and take this process hostage, then their pet projects have the best chance of getting funding again. Never asked is the question of whether taxpayers should continue funding the program in the first place.

As President Reagan famously said: "Government programs, once launched, never disappear…a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth."

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This broken approach must end if we are to ensure long-term competitiveness and quality of living in America for future generations.

Let's take a deeper look at the problem:

  • Continuing resolutions keep programs on "auto-pilot" from year to year without any assessment of whether the money is being well spent. There have been more than 20 of these resolutions in the past five years.
  • Nearly 200 government programs are "fragmented, duplicative, overlapping or just inefficient," according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
  • Congressional committees, charged with scrutinizing how each federal department and agency is actually spending taxpayer dollars, are strapped for time to do so. Committees, on average, hold specific program oversight hearings only a few hours each month and generally focus attention on only one or two programs each year — neglecting many programs under their jurisdiction.
  • Without proper legislative oversight, wasteful government spending continues its meteoric climb as more and more power is ceded to the unaccountable executive branch to govern the programs. No oversight translates into a bureaucracy jobs program — paying federal workers billions to implement programs that have outlived their original mission.

Incredibly, it's been revealed that the government does not actually know the exact number of agencies, offices and government corporations it comprises. (A cursory count on various lists shows the number is in the several hundreds).

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Quite simply, governing by manufactured crisis and the "hot" issue of the day has created a legislative system where there is a lack of designated time to assess the budget and performance of each agency to determine if it is spending taxpayer money effectively and meeting its obligations.

So what's the answer to our broken budgeting process? In two words: biennial budgeting.

Biennial budgeting is the simple idea that budget frameworks should last for two years instead of one — giving Congress one year to determine America's priorities and pass a budget, and the second year to oversee how that money is actually spent.

We need time to monitor the efficacy of each agency and craft the next budget based on what we have learned. For example, more time dedicated to oversight means the Science, Space and Technology Committee on which I sit can better identify and root out spending priorities and inefficiencies at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for instance. Congress can then better fulfill its constitutional responsibilities of budgeting and oversight.

The Biennial Budgeting and Enhanced Oversight Act of 2015 (H.R. 1610), a bill I have cosponsored, would require the federal government to pass one budget good for two fiscal years. Congress would be required to spend 24 months — a full Congress — delving into program functions and funding, and making recommendations for eliminating, revising, or combining programs.

Currently, this bill has 108 co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has expressed support for biennial budgeting. Though the relationship between Congress and the White House has been turbulent at times, biennial budgeting represents rare common ground. It could be a first step toward returning to a functioning, bipartisan budget and oversight process.

Commentary by Randy Hultgren, who represents Illinois' 14th U.S. Congressional District and is a member of the House Financial Services and Science, Space and Technology Committees. Follow him on Twitter @RepHultgren.