Gretchen Hamel: Why Washington is Counting on Your Federal Budget Confusion
This OpEd by Gretchen Hamel, executive director of Public Notice, was a special to The Tampa Tribune.
Americans are clear on one thing: the federal budget is a mess, and they want Washington to fix it. But when it comes to this year’s myriad budget battles, things get very confusing, very quickly. And it appears that’s just how Washington wants it.
Case in point: the debate over the “continuing resolution,” or CR. Because Congress last year failed to pass a budget or single appropriations conference report, the federal government has been running on a series of temporary funding measures called CRs. The last CR passed by the 111th Congress expired March 4, and gave the new Congress its first opportunity to work together to achieve significant spending cuts in the current fiscal year.
The Republican-led House of Representatives went first, and after much wrangling within its own party, claimed a victory in passing $100 billion in “cuts” – and thus fulfilling, as was particularly important to its freshman Members, its much-hyped pre-election promise. But many Congressional Democrats, along with many in the press, rightly cried foul: the $100- billion savings claim was nothing more than fuzzy math, and an obvious attempt to mislead the American people. In fact, the savings were claimed from the higher spending levels requested in the President’s FY2011 budget but never enacted by Congress. When measured against actual current spending levels, Republicans’ cuts amounted to only about $60 billion, far short of their promise.
The Democrat-led Senate was up next. While many argued that House Republicans’ cuts were still far too deep, Senate Democrats had to show that they, too, were serious about cutting spending. Their plan? $41 billion in “cuts” – only $20-billion less than the Republican House, and certainly within striking distance of a compromise. Or so it appeared. In fact, the Senate had just played the same game as House Republicans – claiming savings from the President’s FY2011 budget request, which again, was never acted on by Congress. The Senate’s real savings? $0.
Senate Democrats went on to claim a later, shorter-term bill would save $6.5 billion, but Congress’ official scorekeeper found that, too, to be inflated. Congress’ budget office also found House Republicans’ “real” savings number of $60 billion to be overstated; it was further reduced to $57 billion.
Confused? No wonder. Both Republicans and Democrats are still claiming their respective inflated “savings,” knowingly using the same inflated starting point, and still pointing fingers back and forth to scold the other side for doing the same.
And as the House and Senate (surprise!) have yet to agree on a spending level to fund the government for the rest of the current fiscal year, this fight continues, even as the greater challenge — crafting the Fiscal Year 2012 budget — is supposed to be getting under way.
While something called a CR may not mean much to most Americans, Congress’ handling of it should. In this first real test of spending discipline, both sides chose politics over policy, and pumped-up rhetoric of fiscal discipline over the real thing. How can Americans trust Congress to get us where we’re going if they can’t even agree on from where they’re starting or the rules of the game? And if Congress can’t give a straight answer about relatively small savings numbers – a few tens of billions out of a nearly $4 trillion budget – how can Americans expect Congress to be honest about the real challenges – reforming unsustainable entitlement programs, or tackling a $14 trillion debt?
Voter outrage over unsustainable federal spending and debt drove post-election Washington to declare, in bi-partisan unison, their commitment to “fiscal discipline.” And this year’s abundance of major budget decisions — Congress’ still-unfinished Fiscal Year 2011 budget, the Fiscal Year 2012 budget, and the looming vote on the debt ceiling — provides them a wealth of opportunity to achieve real, significant spending reform.
But Congress’ quick reversion to petty, status-quo gimmickry and bickering in the ongoing CR debate doesn’t bode well for the new era of “fiscal responsibility” we’d all been promised.
Americans expect both parties to work together to get our nation on a sound fiscal course. If Congress wants to stay in Congress, it had better recognize that, while people might be confused at the moment, another election is coming soon enough – and elections tend to bring clarity.
Gretchen Hamel is the executive director of Public Notice, an independent, bipartisan, non-profit organization dedicated to providing facts and insights on the effect public policy has on Americans’ financial well being. For more information please visit www.thepublicnotice.org.