The Anti-Appropriations Committee

March 8, 2011

The U.S. lawmaking process is completely rigged toward favoring increases in federal spending rather than cuts. Sen. John Thune recently introduced a bill that would go a long way in tilting the playing field back the other direction.

Another good idea comes Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, and Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat. They want to create a bipartisan Committee to Reduce Government Waste. A better name would be the Anti-Appropriations Committee. Its raison d’être would be finding and eliminating inefficient and duplicative government programs, like those the government’s chief auditor recently identified. A few thoughts:

1. It’s an old idea, but a good one. The committee’s model is the Joint Committee on Reduction of Non-essential Federal Expenditures, started in 1941 by Sen. Harry Byrd who objected to paying for America’s war effort by raising taxes. In its first three years, the panel claimed credit for some $2 billion in savings, equivalent to perhaps $25 billion today.

2. Under the Hatch-Udall bill, the committee could fast-track its annual recommendations to the Senate floor. Perhaps an even clearer mandate would be to give the panel a specific goal, such as finding cuts equal to some percentage of the previous year’s deficit, as Thune suggests in his bill.

3. But establishing an anti-appropriations committee would be just a first step. Another could be setting budgets for two years rather than one, giving Congress more time to craft and monitor fiscal plans. Lawmakers, after all, have only met the current annual budgeting deadline in four of the past 34 years. Other potential reforms would make it harder to skirt restrictions by labeling outlays as emergency spending.

Bottom line: Of course, none of this avoids the broader need to whittle down America’s long-term healthcare and retirement obligations. But new structures that emphasize discipline could put Congress a bit more in the mood to save rather than spend.

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