Nobody believes anything coming out of Capitol Hill, and for good reason. According to a survey by Indiana University's Center on Congress, released last month, the congressional approval rating hit 9 percent, an all-time low. The poll's margin of error of 3.5 percent means as few as 1 out of 20 surveyed approved of what's happening in Washington -- a sharp decline from the 1 in 5 figure measured just two years ago.
The "fiscal cliff" is just the most recent example of the sort of manufactured crisis that confirms the public's skepticism of the legislative branch. In a recent study, Mercatus Center scholars Timothy P. Roth and Adam C. Smith argued that the decline in public trust has ramifications for the continued viability of the United States as a self-governing republic. Focusing on the federal budget process, Mr. Roth and Mr. Smith show how neglect of constitutional duties fosters the perception that "the budget process is broken, and that 'ordinary citizens can have little confidence that their views have any weight in the decisions made by Congress.'"
The Constitution gave the most accountable branch of government responsibility for taxes and spending. From its early days, Congress was in charge of the entire process. It wasn't until 1921 that the president was given the role of submitting a budget for congressional approval. The shift in power was partially reversed in 1974, when Congress regained some of the control it had ceded to the White House. Now the Senate has failed to pass a budget for the past three years, proving the budgetary process is busted.
The Founders imagined elected representatives in the House and senators representing state interests would give up-or-down approval to various spending proposals. Each member then could be held to account for his choice. Politicians hate accountability, so over the years, they've developed a process that's intentionally murky, blurring the line between authorization and appropriations. Massive resolutions are passed in emergency sessions under rules that allow little debate and inadequate time to evaluate bills.
Worse, an ever-increasing share of the budget has been removed entirely from the approval process. This "mandatory spending" is not controlled by annual appropriations acts -- even though it could be. Outlays for Social Security and other entitlements were less than 28 percent of the budget in 1965, but they now consume 60 percent of the budget. That means 3 out of every 5 dollars in the federal budget are excluded from annual review through the appropriations process.
The result is a budget that looks to outcomes and is vulnerable to special-interest manipulation because it lacks what the Mercatus scholars call effective external enforcement. It's why we have yet another year of $1 trillion deficit spending and a debt approaching 100 percent of gross domestic product.
One of the best ways Congress -- and especially the Senate -- can rebuild credibility is to adopt an honest budget that puts the nation back on a course toward balance.
Nita Ghei is a contributing Opinion writer for The Washington Times.
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