The recently announced debt-limit deal is far from perfect. However, it will reduce spending and does represent a step forward. No such progress would have been possible but for the Americans who rose up in the last election and kicked so many big spenders out of office.
But in order to restore fiscal discipline in Washington, balance our budget and free this country from a growing mountain of debt, much more work is needed - work that will require the vigorous participation of the entire Senate and the public we serve.
Sound policy is not the product of closed-door meetings where party leaders emerge with a last-minute bill that must be rushed toward passage. Rather, sound policy comes from the long, hard, but necessary task of drafting, amending and debating proposals through a public legislative process.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd used to say that the United States Senate was the second great senate in history - the first being the Roman Senate. But Washington has shunned that legacy in recent years, and we are paying the price.
Written into law is a mandatory legislative process for arriving at an annual budget deal. By the first Monday in February, the president must submit a detailed budget to Congress. But President Obama declined to take this responsibility seriously. Having already surged spending dramatically, his February budget increased it every single year - doubling our national debt by 2021. It was rejected unanimously in the Senate by a vote of 97-0. This remains the only plan the president has ever put on paper, presented to Congress or shared with the American people.
Federal law further requires the House and Senate to each pass a budget and then adopt a single binding plan by April 15. A budget cannot be filibustered. Once a majority of senators vote to proceed to a budget, an open amendment and debate process begins. Every senator must stand and be counted.
The newly elected Republican House, in an open process, passed a historic budget this year that changes our debt course. But the Democratic Senate never even wrote a budget. The Democratic majority, which has now failed to adopt a budget for 825 days, even blocked the Budget Committee from publicly meeting to work on a plan. Majority Leader Harry Reid’s strategy was designed to allow his members to avoid taking tough stands and difficult votes. Indeed, his work has been all about protecting incumbents and rejecting accountability.
Had the Senate followed the House in presenting a budget, we would have had sufficient time to evaluate and amend a spending plan - to actually legislate on the dominant issue of our time. We wouldn’t be here in the eleventh hour attempting to hurriedly vet last-minute provisions.
A legislative process should operate like the free market. The exchange and competition of ideas should continue until the best proposal emerges. Senators vote and are held accountable by their employers - the people. It is this dynamic process that we need to confront our nation’s defining challenge: our debt.
Unless we make significant alterations to our nation’s debt path, we face a certain national calamity. Our total debt is now almost equal to the size of our economy and is on track to grow twice as large.
To right our course, we need deep, systemic changes. Ours is not a problem that will be solved with a single deal, a single spending cut or a single vote. It will require the participation of every member of Congress over a long period of time and the full engagement of the American people.
Whether we cut $1 trillion, $2 trillion or even $3 trillion in spending as part of a debt-ceiling increase now, this still represents only the beginning of the spending reductions needed to balance our budget. Over the next 10 years, we will spend $45 trillion and add as much as $13 trillion to the debt. These facts would have become clear in the course of an open debate. It also would have become clear that the savings we must achieve would not devastate good programs or eliminate the safety nets for those in need. The people would see just how much can be done to make our government leaner and more productive.
Instead, after the president and Senate Democrats failed to present real plans, congressional leadership in both parties acquiesced to months of closed-door meetings led by the White House. During that time, the committee and legislative process in the Senate was shut down.
Was the country better served as a result?
When the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government we now had. He replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The task ahead of us will not be easy. But with strong executive leadership, a robust legislative process and a mobilized public, our country will conquer this challenge as it has every other - and the 21st century will be the next American century.