- - Wednesday, July 5, 2017


Anew economic report confirms what common sense has always dictated: being successful starts with doing the small things right. Starting work on time, developing a routine and sticking to a schedule — often called “soft skills” — are significant predictors of professional achievement. Congress should take these findings to heart when exercising the most basic part of their job: spending taxpayer money.

The Constitution grants the power of the purse to Congress. Upon this power, all others functions of government are dependent — from national defense to welfare to infrastructure — no law can be enforced, no program can be implemented, and no project can even begin without checks being cut. There will always be disagreement about what the government should be spending taxpayer money on, which is why it is vitally important to our republic that Congress follows clear rules for the process of determining what is worthy of funding.

In 1974, the Congressional Budget Act established the procedure by which Congress, to this day, is supposed to make spending decisions. The budget process begins when the president submits a budget to Congress, typically on the first Monday in February of each year. This proposal is reviewed — but frequently ignored — by the House and Senate Budget committees, which are then given six weeks to craft their own blueprints for America’s priorities. The committees then reconcile in a joint budget resolution that must be passed by both congressional chambers. To protect the separation of powers, the resolution is not approved by the president.

The budget resolution includes one, topline spending level for all congressionally directed spending in the coming year, which is meant to bind the House and Senate Appropriations committees in their decisions for where taxpayer money will be spent. The Appropriations committees are supposed to take that amount and break it into categories to be handled by the 12 appropriation subcommittees. Each subcommittee drafts, debates and amends specific spending proposals. These proposals are then considered by the full House and Senate, before being sent to the president to become law.

Like setting an alarm clock to wake up on time for work, the budget process itself is not that interesting. But just like the mundane soft skills that set the path for job success, the basic steps in congressional budgeting lead to better government. Budgeting by crisis not only limits the ability for Congress to be effective at its job, but the breakdown in regular budget order forces trillion-dollar decisions to be made away from public scrutiny, thus fostering a growing distrust in the intentions of government.

As in any transition to a new administration, the release of the presidential budget submission to Congress was delayed this year.

Despite the proposal — which is frequently ignored in any case — reaching Congress a month ago, neither the House nor Senate Budget committees have scheduled a hearing to develop their own resolutions.

So the joint budget will also likely be late.

The Appropriations committees have already begun their work, even though they cannot know how much taxpayer money is legally available to spend until a budget resolution is passed.

If Congress is unable to resolve the budget question before the summer recess, some members are suggesting the break be canceled until a deal is reached. Staying late to finish this job could be the right decision, but one that would not have to be made if Congress were doing its work.

The current budget process is far from perfect, but the systemic flaws are exacerbated by the choices of elected officials. While the letter of the law governing spending procedures is deserving of criticism, the spirit of the law should be held in high regard. Maintaining transparent rules for spending taxpayer dollars is the rare practice in which Washington can simultaneously make good politics and good policy.

With an eye on appearances, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has planned to work within proper budget order, while House Speaker Paul Ryan has strived to restore sound procedures to the lower chamber to improve its policy outcomes. But when it comes to budgeting — the foundation of all public policy — progress continues to elude congressional leadership, which may explain why little has been accomplished on other national priorities.

Just like any job, the hard part of legislating cannot begin until the easy stuff is taken care of. Start on time, meet deadlines, pass a budget.

• Albert Downs is the senior economic analyst at Americans for Prosperity.

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