Congress gets an “F” in finances

Uncle Sam hangs on for web
By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

This might only be early October, but for Congress, the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. If it were a school year, what kind of grade should Congress receive?

In math, probably an F.

In fiscal year 2015, the government spent $426 billion more than it collected, adding to a national debt that has now reached $18.2 trillion.

Congress should be looking for ways to improve those numbers. Instead, as pointed out by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, this year it increased deficit spending over the next 10 years in a variety of ways.

Meanwhile, when it comes to its most important assignments, Congress gets an incomplete. The federal government is supposed to be funded through 12 appropriations bills dealing with various areas of spending. The 2016 fiscal year has started, and so far the House has passed six, and the Senate has passed zero.

Because the government has to be funded somehow, Congress this week passed a continuing resolution, which basically keeps things as they are. That’s a problem when the status quo is a $426 billion deficit. This latest one will keep the government functioning until December – just before an election year – when Congress probably will pass another last-minute deal that doesn’t solve much long term.

On some assignments, Congress didn’t score an incomplete, but it was tardy. It waited until Dec. 19, 2014, to extend a series of tax deductions that had expired at the end of 2013, which meant businesses and individuals spent the entire year uncertain if those deductions would continue. Waiting so late defeats the theoretical purpose of having deductions, which is to encourage behavior that is good for the economy.

Unfortunately, there is no way to hold back Congress a year until it learns the material. It must be promoted to the next grade, where it will face ever-growing challenges.

There are two ways of measuring the debt: the total debt; and the debt held by the public, which doesn’t include what the government owes itself as a result of activities such as raiding the Social Security Trust Fund. The total debt is $18.2 trillion. The debt held by the public is $13.1 trillion.

The second figure is 74 percent of the gross domestic product. That’s the highest it has been since World War II. Historically, since 1965 the average has been 38 percent.

How do we get back to just being average? The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says that, taking the long view and setting 2040 as a goal, lawmakers should reduce total deficits over the next 10 years by $5 trillion. That puts the country on a path to 38 percent. But remember, Congress actually made things worse this past year, not better. So it’s not headed in the right direction.

In the short term, Congress must make some tough decisions quickly. In December, the government reaches the debt limit, which by law sets a ceiling on how high the national debt can go. Ultimately, the limit will be raised. The government can’t just stop going into debt without changing its habits any more than you and I can. Over the next couple of months, Congress’ assigned project is to raise the debt limit responsibly by tying it to meaningful reforms. If it does that, it gets a passing grade. If it does what it usually does – bicker until the last second and then pass the buck – it flunks the test again.

It’s students’ fault when they fail to learn the material, but it’s also the schools’ and the parents’. Elected officials are failing to complete their assignments. However, the classroom where they operate makes success almost impossible. The two-party duopoly, campaign finance laws, the filibuster, political consultants, the media environment – they’re all conspiring to turn Congress into an unworkable institution. The Founding Fathers rightly designed a government that was not meant to run smoothly. In today’s political climate, it’s often not running at all.

Meanwhile, kids tend to do what their parents will allow, and certainly what their parents encourage. If voters demanded fiscal responsibility, then even the most ill-behaved members of Congress would oblige, and even this imperfect system could be made to work.

If that were to happen, there wouldn’t need to be a group called the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. We’d already have one, it would be composed of 535 members, and it would have a different name: Congress.

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