Our country is swimming in a sea of red ink, with annual deficits projected to rise rapidly from $534 billion this year to more than $1.3 trillion by 2026 while our national debt is slated to increase by nearly $10 trillion over the next decade. The longer we wait to fix this problem, the more likely we are to have a debt crisis. In order to get our debt under control and put America back on a path toward fiscal responsibility, one of the first things we must do is change the budget process.
Both parties agree that our current budget process is broken. Controls and deadlines that are built into the process are often ignored, enforcement mechanisms are usually circumvented, and the current budget process wrongly focuses most of the scrutiny on the one-third of spending that is subject to annual appropriations with little to no review of mandatory spending, which is the core driver of our debt.
Furthermore, budget resolutions have all but become pure aspiration with no expectation that the policies will ever be implemented or that tax and spending levels will ever be enforced. There are a couple of ways we can improve the budget process.
First, we should make the budget resolution a law signed by the president. Part of the reason why budget resolutions are routinely ignored is because they don’t have the enforcement power of law. Under the current process, Congress passes a budget without buy-in from the president — leading to ad hoc negotiations on omnibus spending bills at the end of the year.
This is precisely what happened last year when congressional leaders and President Obama waited until the eleventh hour to fund the government, which resulted in a short-term bill that gets us through one more year, instead of a long-term solution that addresses our record-high debt. In reality, we cannot fully achieve fiscal discipline if the approved budget can be ignored when fiscal decisions become too tough or politically motivated.
Second, we must ensure that the budget includes all revenue and spending, including the two-thirds of spending usually ignored in the budget process: mandatory spending and interest on the debt. Many social policies are run through the tax code, and that spending is also not reviewed regularly.
By 2027, all revenue the government collects will go toward interest payments and mandatory spending, which means every dime spent on social programs, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the military will be borrowed, thereby adding to the national debt. The budget process must include a realistic accounting of all government spending so we can fully understand how to fix the fiscal challenges our country faces.
Third, Congress must be held accountable if it fails to responsibly fund the federal government on time. The harsh consequences of sequestration took aim at the military and other essential programs, instead of making smart decisions. Each stage of the funding process should have a firm deadline, met without delay and backed by real consequences for Congress, not the military or the American people.
Finally, the full budget process should be redesigned in a way that allows for better results. The current system does not allow for proper accountability, nor does it ensure that federal funds are allocated appropriately. Additionally, Congress should consider moving the timeline of the fiscal year to match the calendar year. Given November elections every two years, our current fiscal calendar only increases the likelihood of Congress abandoning its primary responsibility. In its current form, the budget process has worked only four times in the last 42 years.
Fixing the budget process is an important first step toward putting our debt on a downward path as a share of the economy. The sooner we do that, the sooner we can begin to make much needed changes to update our inefficient tax code and reduce the unsustainable growth of entitlement spending.
It is time for Washington to be honest with the American people about the realities of our current fiscal situation. Completing a timely budget that funds our nation’s priorities is the primary responsibility of Congress. It should not be an afterthought. Until we fix the way Washington funds the federal government, one thing is clear, the results will not change.
• David Perdue is a U.S. senator from Georgia and the only Fortune 500 CEO in Congress. Maya MacGuineas is the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and head of the Campaign to Fix the Debt.