Vice Chairman Rokita Opening Statement: The Need to Control Automatic Spending and Unauthorized Programs

As Prepared for Delivery

Last week this committee examined the Constitutional justification for an overhaul of the Congressional budget process. We meet today to dive deeper into the specific areas where the failures of the current process and Congress’ failure to adhere to a process are manifesting themselves – specifically in the proliferation of automatic spending and unauthorized programs.

The purpose of today’s hearing is not to determine whether or not the current trajectory of automatic spending under current policies is unsustainable. It is. CBO and the actuaries confirm that we cannot continue down the current path we are on and expect that vital programs like Medicare and Social Security will be able to keep the promises made to today’s beneficiaries and future generations.

Our effort here today is to determine what changes ought to be made to the budget process that will both empower and compel policymakers to make responsible decisions. We must be ever cognizant of the fact that we do not operate within a vacuum and these questions and discussions are not simply hypothetical – certainly not to the millions of Americans who are relying on these programs for their health care or retirement and economic security. 

So there is a moral obligation we have to those we represent to make sure we are addressing the fiscal challenges inherent in a number of automatic spending programs. No American should be threatened by a failing system, and all Americans would benefit from more efficient, effective, and accountable policies. There is also an obligation to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.  And also frankly, bring down the debt so future taxpayers, the children of today and tomorrow, are not saddled with this unsustainable debt problem.

The Budget Committee is always examining ways that Congress can hold ourselves more accountable for the money we spend. For anyone that comes into my office to meet with me, I have a debt clock that is counting upwards the total national debt. While some of that increase comes from money appropriated every year through the power of the purse, nearly two-thirds of that spending comes from programs that receive funding automatically.  

Such spending is created through authorization bills that order money to be spent by the government each year with little to no proper oversight by Congress. Congress cannot reduce the funding for these programs without changing the authorization law itself. Next year, fiscal year 2017, mandatory spending is estimated to be $2.9 trillion, which is $151 billion higher than this year. And this spending increase will happen automatically without a vote by this Congress. 

Unless Congress makes real structural improvements to many of the programs on the automatic side of the budget, we are faced with two choices to come up with funding for current policies. We can either reduce spending further on discretionary programs like infrastructure, education, child nutrition, medical research and national defense, which already represent a shrinking portion of the federal budget, or we can continue to rob future generations, our kids and grandkids, by continuing to borrow and grow our national debt. The first choice will not solve our fiscal challenges and the second choice is unfair.

We will certainly not solve these challenges by radically expanding existing automatic spending programs – as some still suggest – nor will we solve it by tax hikes or even tax reform. Cleaning up our tax code is important for our economy and for opportunity for individuals, families and businesses. And a healthier economy will help improve our fiscal well-being. But, we have a spending-driven debt crisis, and we will not get our nation’s fiscal house in order by taking more money from American taxpayers. 

This hearing will also look at unauthorized programs that Congress continues to fund through the appropriations process. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in fiscal year 2016, Congress appropriated $310 billion for 256 programs that either had no authorization or whose authorization of appropriations had expired. This is up from $294 billion in fiscal year 2015. Several large agencies have expired authorizations, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautical and Space Agency, the Federal Election Commission, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Many of the agencies and programs that are operating under expired authorizations serve important purposes. But there is no reason so many government functions should operate without a current authorization by Congress.

I want to thank our panel of witnesses for appearing before the committee today. We have the Honorable David Walker, Former Comptroller General of the United States; Stuart Butler, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at The Brookings Institute; and Lily Batchelder, Professor of Law and Public Policy at NYU’s School of Law.

If Congress is ever going to reclaim the power of the purse, we need to practice more robust oversight, be mindful of and willing to address the fiscal challenges inherent in many current programs, and cautious of the creation of new programs at a time when Congress needs to rein in spending. We need a budget process that supports those goals.

Thank you all for being here today, and with that I yield to the acting Ranking Member, Mr. Yarmuth.