Seeking a smarter approach to the budget
Sequestration grew out of a political impasse: Republicans refused to raise the government’s borrowing limit in 2011 without starting to bring spending under control, but Democrats refused to make choices about where to cut spending.
So the president devised sequestration, on the theory that cutting spending in such a painful and dumb way would force Republicans to raise taxes. Spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare was mostly spared, but other programs, particularly defense, got across-the-board cuts.
As a result, thousands of federal workers, including border security and FBI agents, are being told to expect unpaid furloughs in the coming weeks and months. And that is only the beginning. If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans in Washington can now agree on, it is this: The sequester must be replaced.
Congress has taken bipartisan action to fix small pieces of it. To avert flight delays, we transferred Federal Aviation Administration funds to keep air-traffic controllers working and flight towers open. When the Food Safety and Inspection Service announced it was planning to furlough essential employees required to be on-site for meatpacking and other food production businesses to operate, I led the effort on the Senate floor to keep those critical personnel working.
These examples highlight the sequester’s arbitrary and destructive effects, but they also demonstrate Congress’s ability to come up with common-sense solutions. The question is whether Congress will show the same resolve to legislate a smarter approach to budgeting in general.
There are two options for sequester replacement. One, get rid of the spending limits enacted in 2011. Republicans will not agree to this – nor should they. A government that celebrates when the yearly deficit is projected to be “only” $645 billion is a government badly in need of fiscal discipline.
Americans believe the government spends far too much for our country’s long-term health, and they’re right. However, it’s not as though the spending limits in place would take discretionary spending back to the 1890s. It would only take us back to roughly 2008.
A lot of American families are spending no more now than they did in 2008. The federal government can accept the same constraints.
This leaves us with only one option for replacement. By choosing to live with the spending limits we passed two years ago, Congress can get back to regular order and make the hard decisions about where to rein in federal spending. Leadership requires setting priorities and making those hard choices. The Constitution gives Congress the responsibility to appropriate money from the Treasury. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I take that responsibility seriously.
House appropriators have moved us forward by agreeing to adhere to the limit of $966 billion for non-entitlement spending in 2014. This is the maximum amount the law would allow without having to make any across-the-board cuts – in other words, no sequester.
We should not put in the law for the next nine years to break spending limits that we already accepted. We could, on the other hand, agree on a budget that respects those limits – but hits them in a more rational way than sequestration.
Both sides should now agree that it is better to spend the same amount of money intelligently and deliberately rather than according to the sequester’s mechanical formula. The chief obstacle to such a deal is the Democrats’ hope that sticking with sequestration will force Republicans to raise taxes and spending.
Once they abandon that fantasy, we might be able to get a budget that looks a little bit more like someone designed it on purpose.
PHOTO (Insert A): The air traffic control tower at the Ramona Airport in Ramona, California, March 12, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake
PHOTO (Insert B): President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal is released to Senate staff members on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 10, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron