- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The United States is going deeper and deeper into debt, and no one in Washington can agree on what to do about it. For over a year now, the federal government has operated off a series of continuing resolutions instead of a long-term, binding budget. Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, wants to repair this broken process.

Mr. Ryan joined fellow Republican committee members Wednesday to introduce a package of 10 bills that would straighten out the mess. “The books are cooked in Washington,” the Wisconsin lawmaker told reporters. “If we actually were held under real accounting standards, none of us would be here because we’d be in jail…We need to have spending controls. And we need to have a process that prevents stumbling from crisis to crisis.”

As part of the package, entitlement spending - the biggest driver of our debt - would be capped at the level of inflation and a percentage of gross domestic product. Exceeding the limits would trigger program cuts. “This will motivate Congress to take a look at mandatory spending and see if there are reforms or adjustments that need to be made before it continues to spiral out of control,” explained Rep. John Campbell of California, the bill’s sponsor.

To encourage stability, budgets would be completed on a biennial basis and would have the force of law. Government-shutdown dramas would be averted by creating an automatic, 90-day continuing resolution with a 1 percent reduction in spending that would kick in if an appropriations bill isn’t signed before expiration. Spending levels would go down another percentage point for every month that the breakdown in negotiations continues.

Government grows in perpetuity because the budgetary baseline is adjusted up each year for inflation instead of starting flat at the previous year’s levels. “Currently built into every budget cycle is the expectation that we’re going to spend more,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia. “In the context of $15 trillion debt, we can’t have that expectation any longer.”

Ideally, the budget should be started every year from zero to make bureaucrats justify the need for every program, but Mr. Woodall told The Washington Times that zero baseline budgeting would be “logistically impossible for a budget of our magnitude.”

The problems with the system are fundamental. The Democratic-controlled Senate hasn’t so much as proposed a budget since 2009, and it’s not likely to do so next year. As Mr. Ryan said, “That’s not governing. That’s not solving problems. That’s kicking the can down the road. That’s inviting European-type debt crisis.” Without an agreement on the limits to spending, Congress is encouraged to pass omnibus spending packages that increase spending and hide waste.

Congress is still debating the next short-term spending bill needed to keep the government open past Dec. 16. As long as the focus is on the small battles, lawmakers will never come to grips with the long-term impact of their excessive spending. The time for substantive budget reform is now.

Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.