The PJ Tatler

Three Ideas that Might Actually Fix Washington's Spending Addiction

I was out sick during most of the budget action over the weekend and yesterday, so in getting caught up I’m finding myself more than underwhelmed. The deal struck isn’t big enough, doesn’t really reform entitlements, and hits defense too hard. I know, I know, it’s a compromise, which by its nature means most political watchers will find it unsatisfying. And it is amusing to hear the howling from the left about Obama’s latest “capitulation” or whatever. I do think he played a weak hand poorly, but he did get one big win, and that’s the move to take the debt ceiling high enough to get past the next election. Now he only has to run on his dismal stewardship of the economy, his administration’s attacks on the states, and his weak foreign policy.

It still seems to me, though, that the GOP didn’t get enough in the way of real structural reform. Two things need to happen, as soon as possible, to force some real discipline on Washington. One is the ending of baseline budgeting. The other is sun-setting federal agencies.

Baseline budgeting assumes current spending levels plus inflation as the baseline for budgeting year to year. It’s this practice that turns actual spending increases into “cuts” in CBO scores, and which has allowed Democrats to keep growing government decade after decade no matter who is in the White House or whether they’re declaring the era of big government over or just taking a breather. Baseline budgeting is a deception and it feeds the Beltway Beast. Congress needs to end it. And the GOP presidential candidates need to make it a major campaign issue, to start the discussion and force Obama to defend it or abandon it.

The second change that might turn Washington around is sun-setting federal agencies. Every few years, the EPA, NLRB, Department of Education, HUD, etc should face the real possibility of extinction (DoD would be exempt). These agencies tend to behave as if they’re not accountable to the people, and mission creep has made them nearly tyrannical. This would have to be done with some shrewdness and independence built into the review, or the agencies will simply show how aggressive they have been in expanding their mission to justify their continuation. These agencies need to be forced to show that they’re living within their means and living within their statutory missions, not growing them.

We also need a balanced budget amendment to force the government to live within its means. The debt deal apparently includes an eventual vote on that, at least.