As Prepared for Delivery
Over the past several weeks, this committee has held hearings focused on different aspects of our effort to reform the Congressional budget process. Budget enforcement – the subject of today’s hearing – has been a part of the discussion from the very beginning. And the reason is obvious. A budget that is not enforced – is not effective. Moreover, the budget process Congress ultimately adopts will only be successful if Congress is willing to enforce the budgets it approves.
This is a two part discussion. We must determine what rules and limits we believe are reasonable and worth adopting and maintaining. At the same time, we have to determine how we will force Congress – through both Republican and Democratic leadership – to abide by those rules and limits.
The current process is not without enforcement mechanisms. You could even argue they are too numerous to be actually effective or, at the very least, too confusing and disjointed. At the congressional level, we have the Congressional Budget Act itself which prescribes certain enforcement tools. We have the annual budget resolution that when adopted provides for additional enforcement measures. And, we have the rules of the House that members vote on each Congress. In law, there is PAYGO – which has the unfortunate effect of making current debt or deficit levels seem ok so long as we don’t add to them – and the current Budget Control Act caps on discretionary spending coupled with sequestration which have proven to be problematic in their own right – each trading thoughtful budgeting and prioritization for across the board cuts that treat almost all government spending as equal and worthwhile.
One of the more troubling aspects of the current budget enforcement environment is how easy it is to waive budget protocols – often with little or no recognition that Congress is agreeing to violate its own rules. This is a chronic problem, and it undermines the integrity of the process as a whole. While we can all imagine instances where it might be reasonable to expect Congress might need flexibility to temporarily forgo certain restrictions, we all should be able to agree that it should be a lot harder and less convenient than it currently is for Congress to break its own rules.
In the absence of a truly effective budget enforcement system, Congress has spent decades adopting, and often discarding, various avenues to control spending. Whether it be a “super committee,” the occasional attempts at a “grand bargain,” continuing resolutions in lieu of the regular appropriations process, or the aforementioned sequestration – to name just a few – Congress has tried and largely failed to create consistency and coherency in its budget enforcement efforts.
What is worse, too often policymakers have sought to ship the responsibility for enforcing spending discipline to the Washington regulatory regime. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the mandatory spending side of the ledger – namely the Medicare program. You’ll remember the now discarded Sustainable Growth Rate formula that was meant to tamp down the growth in federal health care spending but instead simply succeeded in threatening access to healthcare for America’s seniors. Thanks to current healthcare law, we currently have the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, a board of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats tasked with saving money by denying payment for and thus access to health care services for beneficiaries.
If Congress is willing to have a rational and realistic conversation about the nation’s fiscal challenges, there is no need to hand over control of tough decision-making to regulators. In fact, that sort of structure only weakens Congress’ power of the purse – as prescribed by our Constitution – and it diminishes the role of the budget in the broader legislative process.
Ultimately, to strengthen our budget enforcement, we must streamline and make coherent the rules by which we choose to govern our fiscal well-being. We need to make a violation of those rules – whether or not it is the will of a majority of Congress – more obvious so policymakers may hold themselves accountable and be held accountable by the American people. Such a structure would hopefully make a waiver of our rules the exception and not the norm – as currently exists.
To discuss where we go from here, we have as our witnesses today William Hoagland, Senior Vice President at the Bipartisan Policy Center; Barry Anderson, an independent consultant; and Richard Kogan, Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Thank you all for being a part of this conversation. We welcome you and look forward to hearing your thoughts on how Congress can enhance enforcement of our budget process.
And with that, I yield to the Ranking Member, Mr. Van Hollen.