- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2011

The budget madness that gripped Washington for the past few weeks, culminating in Friday’s shutdown showdown, was both unnecessary and a distraction from bigger challenges. Those challenges include how we are going to tackle a national debt that is growing by $4 billion every day and why we went more than six months into the fiscal year before setting a budget.

By the start of this fiscal year, our debt already had increased by nearly $3 trillion since President Obama was sworn into office. His latest proposed budget would add another $13 trillion to that debt by the end of 2021. That means in another decade, every man, woman and child in America will be responsible for paying off an average of more than $78,000 of government debt.

This out-of-control spending is due partly to Mr. Obama’s misguided belief that we can simply spend our way out of our financial troubles. But the tremendous increase in debt has also been aided by the gimmicks of the federal budget process itself, which allow Congress to avoid making tough decisions about prioritizing our spending and make it all too easy to take on more debt.

Research shows that the economies of countries with debt above 90 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) grow about 1 percent more slowly than they would otherwise. We already have crossed that dangerous threshold - our debt was 93 percent of GDP at the end of the last fiscal year, and it will top 100 percent by October, according to the White House’s own projections. That 1 percent of lost economic growth because of our debt translates into 1 million lost jobs.

If we are going to turn things around, we will need not just to change the failed policies that led to the excess spending but to fix the broken process by which Washington spends the taxpayers’ money. To help do that, I have introduced legislation that would improve transparency and efficiency in the budget process while reducing spending.

First, I am proposing serious reforms to the way we appropriate money.Under our current system, the federal budget is not binding. That means the government can simply ignore the budget and spend as much as it wants. There are a few brakes in the system to slow that down, but they are ineffective and easily bypassed through tricks like declaring the spending to be an “emergency.” My plan would make the budget a binding resolution, signed into law by the president, restraining Congress from going on an endless spending spree.

We also would move to a two-year budget. Congress would pass a budget in the first year after an election and then conduct oversight and find savings during the year of an election. So, rather than running for re-election touting money spent, members of Congress would begin to run on money saved.

The budget also would have to follow more rigorous procedures to ensure accountability. These would include improving the pay-as-you-go and trust-fund accounting rules that were abused widely by Democrats in the health care and other spending bills; setting tougher requirements to declare spending to be an emergency; and establishing safeguards to make sure that Obamacare’s controversial new assisted-living entitlement program does not drive the nation even deeper into debt.

Second, to make sure spending cuts become the norm and not the exception, my bill would establish a permanent, bipartisan joint committee of Congress for budget deficit reduction with the sole responsibility of cutting the deficit. This committee’s whole purpose would be to craft legislation that would reduce spending and cut the previous year’s deficit by at least 10 percent, without tax increases. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office confirmed that we could save tens - if not hundreds - of billions of dollars every year simply by trimming duplication in the federal government. That is exactly the kind of waste this committee could target when making cuts.

Today, Congress has 26 committees and subcommittees devoted to spending more money. We ought to have at least one committee looking for ways to save money.

Finally, the plan I’m proposing would freeze all non-national-security discretionary spending for 10 years. The spending cap would be set at the 2008 funding level, before Mr. Obama’s spending explosion began, and could be adjusted only for inflation.

The failed stimulus and other unrestrained federal spending in Washington have done a great deal of damage. It is not too late to recover, but as things stand now, it is clear that our budget process is hopelessly broken, creating deficits as far as the eye can see. The challenges we face are serious, but my plan offers common-sense solutions that will begin to get us back on the path to a balanced budget and help us stay on it.

Sen. John Thune is a Republican member of the U.S. Senate from South Dakota.

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