- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The second floor of the U.S. Capitol has been closed to tourists for almost 10 years due to security and congestion concerns, accessible only to members of Congress, staff and persons on “official business.” Sadly, this prohibition denies visitors some of the most spectacular views of the city: The Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial grace the Mall to the west, while the grand architecture of the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress dominate the vista to the east.

Today’s guests, however, would be shocked at the panorama outside one side of the nearly two-century-old Capitol. Gone are the ancient oaks and maples, shading the green grass and park benches on the expansive lawn on the east side. Now a mammoth crater, wide as a football field and several stories deep — the construction site of the new visitors center — replaces that view.

Inside “the hole” there are trucks, bulldozers and two massive cranes rising hundreds of feet into the air — the necessary tools to accomplish the task at hand.

Walking through the Capitol this week, I thought the heavy-duty gear used outside the buildingwasanappropriate metaphor for another discussion about “tools” going on inside the building this week. Today, a subcommittee of the House Rules Committee begins an important set of hearings about reforming thecongressionalbudget process. Re-establishing the necessary legislative utensils — the shovels and picks lawmakers need to better control spending and dig out of the deficit hole — is a central theme in these deliberations.

The Rules Subcommittee, chaired by Ohio congresswoman and Republican Conference Chair Deborah Pryce, will question White House Budget Director Joshua Bolten and a variety of lawmakers about their ideas to change the budget laws, making it easier for Congress to curb the urge to splurge. Budget-process reform may seem arcane, yet these rules have a major impact on how Congress decides to spend and its ability to achieve fiscal restraint.

The major law establishing the current rules, the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, is now 30 years old. This measure, which created the House and Senate Budget Committees, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and a host of complicated procedures, has also produced only three balanced budgets in as many decades. All you need to know about the feckless nature of the law is that a Democrat-controlledCongress, upset that Republican President Nixon was trying to control wasteful spending, originally enacted it to keep their spending spigot flowing.

Adopting new budget rules can give lawmakers sharper swords to slay the deficit dragon. Congress has tried to improve the 1974 budget law several times in the past two decades. The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law in the 1980s gave Congress the ability to “sequester” funds automatically if deficit targets were not met. The 1990 Budget Enforcement Act created “spending caps” and pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules (the requirement that new spending or tax cuts are offset). Budgetary rules like these often gave Congress at least modest procedural weapons to say “no” to voracious spending. Yet, many of these rules expired in 2002, leaving lawmakers with fewer tools to fight spending.

Other tools lawmakers will consider at today’s hearing and over the next several weeks include establishing biennial budgeting, creating a line-item veto that can pass constitutional muster and collapsing the confusing categories of spending into a smaller manageable set. Many of these suggestions are incorporated into different versions of legislation crafted by Republican Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin,MikeCastleof Delaware and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

Lawmakers will construct a new set of procedures and try to enact them in separate legislation later this year. Promising to do so may help pass the budget resolution under consideration this week in the Senate and on the House floor next week.

Ideas offered by the White House and House members at today’s hearing have merit, and lawmakers could assist the cause of fiscal restraint by adopting them. At a minimum, Congress should re-establish caps and PAYGO rules for spending. Some in Congress are concerned about going too far and violating the principle of “majority rule” by instituting a host of “super-majority” requirements on spending that exceed targets. Nonetheless, while specific proposals are important, the most critical task is for Congress to re-establish or create tools to help dig out of the budget-deficit hole. The perfect package of budget reforms should not be the enemy of getting some good tools re-established.

Builders on the east front of the Capitol need shovels, picks and mortar to fill the hole in the ground; Congress needs some new tools of its own to construct a new edifice of fiscal restraint.

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