Federal Budget Reform

Transparency in government finance has proven to be an effective antidote against profligate government spending, but there is still much work to be done. The Center believes taxpayers should be able to track, dollar for dollar, where their tax dollars are spent at all levels of government. Federal openness in spending has been piecemeal, with the Transparency and Accountability in Government Spending Act of 2006 serving as the cornerstone, but dated, template for spending transparency. Other efforts, such as the tracking of “stimulus” dollars on Recovery.gov, have fallen far short of their promises of honest accounting.

Until recently, earmarks made up tens of billions in extraneous spending each year, funneling tax dollars to parochial projects. Since assuming control of the House of Representatives, Republicans have banned earmarking and Senate Republicans have pledged to eschew pork-barreling as well. This has stemmed, but not stopped, the flow of federal cash to local interests and the Center continues to work to eliminate earmarking, though it may be characterized by a different name.

The material significance of earmarks pales in comparison to their procedural effect – pork greases the palms of lawmakers, enticing perhaps otherwise fiscally-prudent members to vote for bloated spending bills. Such deal-making, even if it is no longer considered “earmarking” is emblematic of the larger problem of how the deck is stacked against federal spending restraint. The appropriations process should be open and accountable – each taxpayer dollar spent should be able to withstand the scrutiny of a full committee mark.

Profligate spending is also encouraged by Congress’s piecemeal approach to budgeting. Lawmakers rarely abide by the fiscal year deadline to complete the appropriations process, resulting in Continuing Resolutions that extend (and usually increase) spending for months until an agreement can be reached. However, the practice of cobbling together appropriations bills into one large bill is also commonplace. Referred to as an “omnibus” the thousand-page monstrosities are rife with waste and contain bloated spending never subjected to tough scrutiny by lawmakers.

Along with doing away with omnibus and stop-gap budgeting, other reforms such as increasing the threshold for waiving points of order (the enforcement mechanism for the meager budget constraints that currently exist) and establishing points of order for common-sense reforms, such as prohibitions on blanket spending allocations and appropriations for unauthorized programs, are necessary. Other efforts to increase accountability, such as requiring legislation to be online for a full five days before it can receive a floor vote, would also guard against abusive spending.

TAGS: Earmarks, Budget Reform