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Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Time to Stop and Smell the Government

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Washington, July 10, 2012 | comments

By Christian Schneider

One of the most common complaints about government is that it simply runs too slow. Partisan bickering and gridlock hold up helpful bills in Congress. Bureaucrats shuffle papers around, leaving permits and financial aid checks unfulfilled. By the time you reach the front of the line at the DMV, cars themselves will be deemed illegal by President Bieber.

Yet for all the complaints about government's languid pace, there is something far worse: government that works too fast.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the federal government's annual budgeting process. Under current law, Congress has to go through the painful contortions of passing a budget every year; once that spending plan is finalized, it is time to turn right around and begin the wheeling and dealing on a new budget. (This is, of course, the ideal. In practice, the U.S. Senate hasn't passed a budget in over three years.)

This process converts Congress into little more than a money pump, enabling special interests to belly up to the spending bar. Consequently, with the House and Senate constantly in motion, there isn't any time for the government to stop, take a deep breath and ascertain whether any of the programs they are enacting do any darn good.

In order to provide more accountability in the federal budgeting process, freshman U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) has introduced a bill that would change the budget process from annual to biennial. Ribble said his bill would provide "enhanced oversight of government agencies and programs." Instead of merely writing checks, Congress would be able to dig around and test the efficacy of its spending programs.

Ribble's bill, which is co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), would make the federal budget process more like the biennial process employed by the State of Wisconsin. It is likely that, after reading that sentence, you just squinted your eyes, scrunched your nose and blurted out, "Wait, we want the federal government to be more like Wisconsin, after what the state just went through?" (I hope you did not say this out loud while standing in line at the DMV, where you are probably still waiting.)

But the answer is yes. Imagine if, after all the tumult of Gov. Scott Walker's first budget, he had to come right back and pass a new spending plan within 12 months of signing the first one into law. Because the state uses the two-year process, things have had the chance to calm down, and legislators will be able to fully consider the first budget's effects. (And, despite it being the first time it has happened in Wisconsin, can anyone imagine Walker trying to pass a budget at virtually the same time he's trying to stave off a recall election?)

Of course, asking a congressman to vote to limit his own spending power is like asking a baboon to play the harmonica. Ribble's bill stands little chance of passing, considering the president's belief that more government spending creates jobs. According to President Barack Obama's reasoning, if people were allowed to keep more of their own money, citizens would grow confused and begin eating dollar bills covered in ketchup.

But if enacted, Ribble's bill would provide businesses with the certainty they need to begin hiring more employees. Rather than face the threat of a tax hike or new regulations every year, small businesses would be able to plan ahead and make employment decisions with less worry.

Obviously, simply juggling the calendar around wouldn't be a panacea, but it would be a good place to start. (Ryan's committee has introduced a whole slate of budget reforms, including a bipartisan line-item veto plan and a cap on borrowing and spending.)

Until Congress begins to eliminate the systematic biases in favor of spending more money, federal debt and deficits will continue to spiral out of control - at which time they will move quickly to blame someone else.

Online: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

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