Con­gress’ bud­get gim­mickry is never-end­ing

The Boyertown Area Times - - OPINION - Jerry Shenk Jerry Shenk is a Penn­syl­va­ni­abased colum­nist. Email him at

Back from its ex­tended sum­mer va­ca­tion, Amer­ica’s part­time Con­gress pro­longed a bud­get crunch. In De­cem­ber, the body will un­doubt­edly vic­tim­ize tax­pay­ers us­ing the same gim­mickry leg­is­la­tors have ex­ploited for years.

Con­gress em­ploys “base­line bud­get­ing,” a spend­ing ac­cel­er­a­tor fa­vored by both par­ties’ big spenders, to guar­an­tee an­nual in­creases for fed­eral agen­cies and pro­grams re­gard­less of their merit or ben­e­fits to tax­pay­ers.

Base­’s web­site ex­plains: “[A] base­line govern­ment bud­get in­volves car­ry­ing over the cur­rent spend­ing level from year to year and treat­ing it as the floor on which to build ad­di­tional spend­ing changes. The ma­jor as­sump­tion in this ap­proach is that the ex­ist­ing spend­ing level of the agency is cor­rect and needs no ad­just­ment.”

Ex­cept for in­creases, of course.

Spend­ing watch­dog Cit­i­zens Against Govern­ment Waste (CAGW) writes: “In re­al­ity, base­line bud­get­ing is one of the most sin­is­ter ways that politi­cians claim to cut spend­ing when they are ac­tu­ally in­creas­ing spend­ing.”

If an agency re­quests a seven per­cent bud­get in­crease, but Con­gress au­tho­rizes only three per­cent, the dif­fer­ence, which merely re­duces the rate of in­crease, is called a “bud­get cut.”

CAGW: “[I]f an agency’s bud­get is pro­jected to grow by $100 mil­lion, but only grows by $75 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to base­line bud­get­ing, that agency sus­tained a $25 mil­lion cut.”

In that way, spend­ing al­ways in­creases, and govern­ment pro­grams never die, not even use­less, out­dated or re­dun­dant ones.

Since 2011, the Govern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice has is­sued an­nual re­ports iden­ti­fy­ing du­pli­ca­tion or over­lap­ping waste in agen­cies and pro­grams. Con­gress ig­nores them.

In a sane world, Con­gress would do what work­ing fam­i­lies do: Cal­cu­late how much money the govern­ment will have in a fis­cal year and then, based on sen­si­ble pri­or­i­ties, bud­get how to spend the funds.

But there’s lit­tle san­ity in Wash­ing­ton, oth­er­wise, Amer­ica’s debt couldn’t have out­grown its eco­nomic out­put.

A 2010 Ras­mussen sur­vey re­ported that 83 per­cent of Amer­i­cans be­lieved the size of fed­eral bud­get deficits was due more to the un­will­ing­ness of politi­cians to cut spend­ing than to the re­luc­tance of tax­pay­ers to pay more taxes. Some­what sur­pris­ingly, two-thirds of Democrats agreed. Only 11 per­cent of all vot­ers thought the govern­ment spent tax­pay­ers’ money wisely. Over­whelm­ing ma­jori­ties still blame Wash­ing­ton profli­gacy on both par­ties.

Big-govern­ment Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ments both face in­ter­nal schisms, Repub­li­cans from anti-es­tab­lish­ment fis­cal con­ser­va­tives and Democrats from their grow­ing anti-es­tab­lish­ment so­cial­ist fac­tion. Most con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans and Democrats have far more in com­mon with each other than they do with the anti­estab­lish­ment wings they see as big­ger threats than their coun­ter­parts across the aisle.

Elected elites haven’t yet fully grasped the de­ter­mi­na­tion of their in­ter­nal op­po­si­tion, so con­gres­sional mem­bers of both par­ties have united to pre­serve Wash­ing­ton’s bro­ken sta­tus quo, which, of course, in­cludes their in­cum­ben­cies.

Con­gress alone costs tax­pay­ers about $16 mil­lion per day (times 365 days) in salaries, al­lowances and mis­cel­la­neous costs. Even­tu­ally, op­po­si­tion will re­place or in­sol­vency will in­duce Con­gress to sum­mon the cu­mu­la­tive willpower to seek help for its ad­dic­tion to power and perks, psy­cho­log­i­cal af­flic­tions of which spend­ing is a pri­mary symp­tom.

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