LEWIS: Key steps to balanced budgets

We need to cut but also to change how the budget works

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Election Day has come and gone, but the message sent by the American people is clear: They want government to spend less, use more common sense and reform the way business is done in Washington.

This underlying message was the cornerstone of many electoral victories two weeks ago. The new Republican majority is preparing to fulfill our pledge to the American public by reining in debilitating deficits and debt and putting our nation on a responsible financial path.

But another challenge, which is no less important, is how these spending reductions will be made. The Appropriations Committee - which will be ground zero for spending cuts - must begin strengthening the budget process with common-sense reforms to better control spending and make it more transparent and accountable to taxpayers who are footing the bill.

In order to make American taxpayers the priority in the federal budget process and fulfill the promises made to them in this election, Congress and the Appropriations Committee must implement the following much-needed reforms:

c Set multiyear caps on discretionary spending: This will limit the ability of Congress and the president to spend more than the budget allows in the current year and in years to come. For much of the 1990s, discretionary spending caps, while not perfect, proved an effective tool in helping control spending.

c End the era of massive, multibill omnibus spending measures:These measures are often used as last-minute “Christmas tree” legislation when Congress fails to finish its annual appropriations work. If appropriations measures are not completed by the end of the fiscal year, Congress should pass short-term, low-funding-rate continuing resolutions to keep the government operating - not default to onerous and costly omnibus bills.

c End unnecessary “emergency” spending: We must end the flawed process that allows massive “emergency” spending bills to carry unnecessary and wasteful spending - often with little notice or public scrutiny. Statutory changes that establish criteria for both Congress and the administration to evaluate what constitutes a true emergency will provide clear guidelines for these important bills. This will help reduce wasteful spending and enable Congress to better address unexpected and often disastrous national crises.

c Craft spending bills in public: The committee must ban the secretive “smoke-filled room” process through which virtually all spending decisions are made out of public view. This reform is especially crucial to our success in cutting spending, as crafting lean legislation in the open with full participation from members of Congress will help facilitate final approval of the legislation when it comes to the House floor for a vote.

c Require better information on long-term budget impacts: Congressional Budget Office cost estimates, where feasible, must include more information about the budgetary effects of legislation beyond the standard 10-year budget window. With improved information, coupled with new budget rules addressing long-term spending, members of Congress would be better able to curb legislation that increases the deficit beyond the 10-year budget window, protecting future generations against unforeseen debt.

c Denying administration earmarks: Last month, I called for continuing the moratorium on earmark spending into the next Congress. This week, House Republicans should approve this extension. The Obama administration should follow our lead, but if it doesn’t, Congress should deny administration earmarks contained in federal agency budgets.

In addition to these common-sense reforms, Congress must provide more and better oversight of existing government spending. By taking advantage of every available legislative resource and using the power of the public eye, the Appropriations Committee can better determine exactly where wasteful, duplicative or ineffective spending resides in federal budgets.

Under a Republican majority, the Appropriations Committee must hold exhaustive and public spending oversight hearings. These should include testimony from the inspector general of every single federal agency, the Government Accountability Office and independent spending “watchdog” organizations. Regional oversight hearings held in local communities across the nation will provide a ground-level view of federal programs by local administrators rather than Washington bureaucrats.

In addition, the Appropriations Committee must hold public hearings in each subcommittee to allow any member of Congress to propose specific ideas for spending cuts. These hearings would be a welcome change from the standard focus on how to spend more, not less. And, the power of technology can be harnessed to provide an opportunity for anyone to report wasteful government spending and offer ideas for real and substantive program cuts.

After years of unfettered spending and skyrocketing deficits, the task of cutting spending back to responsible levels will be monumental. There can no longer be “sacred cows” or politically favored programs that are exempt from scrutiny and cuts. Every single government agency must be put under a public microscope to thoroughly examine how valuable and scarce tax dollars are being spent.

Republicans on the Appropriations Committee are committed to putting taxpayers first and are ready to tackle our budget challenges head-on. But this is not a battle that we can fight alone. To address the entire federal budget, including mandatory and entitlement spending, we must partner with our colleagues on the Budget Committee and authorizing committees to eradicate waste and stop the explosive expansion of the federal government. It is as a team that we will be successful in our fight to get our nation’s finances back on track, and ensure a stable and prosperous economic future for generations to come.

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