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Budget Reforms that Deserve Attention

John Thune has ideas.

12:00 AM, Aug 12, 2010 • By GARY ANDRES
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The View’s hostesses probably won’t invite Senator John Thune on the show to discuss his new budget proposal. Ideas this thoughtful rarely attract pop culture media attention.

Budget Reforms that Deserve Attention

Despite the glitterati’s lack of interest, the South Dakota senator’s new plan to restore fiscal discipline should become a cause for decision-makers and regular Americans alike. 

President Obama, on the other hand, has no problems finding his way to a daytime TV set.  But when it comes to curbing red ink, he disappears when others yell “Action!” 

The White House’s current budget forecasts do contain a cinematic quality – but it’s more like a scary movie.  Even if we make some heroic assumptions and believe everything goes right in terms of spending and revenue forecasts, America ends up with unsustainable levels of debt.

Like a bad vaudeville act, Obama’s budget production should get the hook.

Enter Senator Thune. His proposal, introduced last month, delves into the prosaic world of budget procedure and rules. Not particularly glamorous, but critically important to our nation’s future economic security.

The implicit part of Thune’s narrative is the most critical.  Returning to budgetary health won’t happen overnight.  It’s not a screenplay that policymakers can produce and conclude in an election cycle or two.  It requires a sustained, disciplined approach, demanding a wide assortment of tools.

Thune’s ideas are sober and methodical – more epic film than short-term documentary.

His script includes some familiar features.  First, he calls for common sense spending reforms – a binding 10-year discretionary spending cap for non-national security and veteran programs, as well as an end to stimulus spending not obligated by the end of this year. That alone produces billions in savings over the next decade.

Thune’s initiative also proposes several budget process improvements.  He forces the executive and legislative branches to work more closely by requiring the White House to approve the congressional budget.  Right now the president and Congress produce separate plans. But this year the Democrats in Congress took the “dog ate my homework” approach and didn’t even write a fiscal blueprint.

The South Dakota senator’s initiative also establishes a two-year budget timeline (now Congress is supposed to produce annual budgets) and a legislative line item veto.  Under this plan, the president proposes spending cuts, but then subjects these changes to congressional approval. This approach avoids the constitutional issues encountered by other line-item veto proposals that do not include a role for the legislative branch.

But it’s Thune’s final idea that deserves special attention – the creation of a Joint Committee of Congress on Deficit Reduction.  This new panel would include 20 members of Congress, 10 from the House of Representatives and 10 from the Senate.  The plan requires the new committee to introduce legislation annually to cut at least 10 percent of the previous year’s budget deficit by eliminating spending.  This measure would receive expedited consideration in both chambers to act on its recommendations.

It’s an approach that makes sense for a variety of reasons.  First, we are no longer awaiting the fiscal crisis.  It has arrived.  We may not yet feel its full impact, but like a cancer, it’s growing.  

Congress needs to recognize and elevate this fiscal emergency on its priority list.  Numerous committees in the House and Senate spend tax dollars and create or expand programs. But Congress has no panels whose sole purpose is to find and eliminate needless or ineffective spending.  The new joint committee would do just that.

It would also signal to financial markets and the American people that Congress finally gets it.  Washington should not be immune from the belt tightening experienced by everyone else.

Congress has even cut spending using this approach in the past. In 1941, they passed a new law creating the Joint Committee on the Reduction of Federal Expenditures – a panel that included senior members of the House and Senate, as well as the Secretary of the Treasury and the head of what was then called the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget).  At the time, Congress was trying to eliminate a number of New Deal programs that had outlived their usefulness.

Sounds like history is repeating itself.  Spending and debt are out of control, and Congress lacks the tools and discipline to address the problem. Political scientists have long argued procedure shapes policy. This new set of utensils could help lawmakers attack the long-term budget issue.

Senator Thune is throwing his colleagues some procedural lifelines. Lawmakers better not wait for an invite from Barbara Walters or Whoopi Goldberg before they agree to take hold. 

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