Faced with another dire prognosis from the Congressional Budget Office, GOP lawmakers are attempting to restore fiscal sanity to the federal budget process.
At a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday, more than two dozen House and Senate Republican gathered in support of the Honest Budget Act, a bill that would eliminate a laundry list of gimmicks Congress has used for years to avoid budgetary constraints and fuel ever-increasing spending levels.
"The American people are not happy with how Congress and the administration manages their money," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who originally introduced the legislation in Oct. 2011.
Sessions’ bill identifies and eliminates nine gimmicks that frequently allow Congress to hide the true cost of government spending. For example, it would prohibit Congress from abusing the "emergency" spending designation, typically used for unforeseen events like natural disasters, on non-emergencies. In 2008, Congress appropriated $210 million in "emergency" funding to conduct the 2010 Census, an undertaking required by the Constitution.
The bill would also prevent the oft-abused practice of "time-shifting," which involves transferring certain costs or revenues in or out of the standard 10-year budget window in order to achieve a more favorable forecast from the CBO. This gimmick was used in President Obama’s health-care legislation in order to give the appearance that the bill would reduce the deficit over 10 years.
Perhaps most significantly, the Honest Budget Act seeks to force the Democratic-led Senate to actually pass a budget, something it has failed to do in more than 1,000 days. It would accomplish this by imposing a 60-vote requirement to proceed to appropriations bill in the absence of a budget resolution.
"It is truly a shame that we have to come out here and force the hand of the Democrats by passing a law saying you guys truly do have to present a budget," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). "[Their] constituents want to see how much money we’re going to spend."
Twenty-one Republican senators have cosponsored the bill, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has refused to hold a vote on the measure. As a result, a group a House Republicans led by freshman Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) intends to move similar legislation through the lower chamber. Flanked by a number of her freshman colleagues, Roby praised the legislation as "a good first step" toward curbing out-of-control spending in Washington.
"Through precedent or bad habit, these gimmicks have become institutionalized in both houses of Congress, and both parties are very guilty of exploiting them," she said. "Americans deserve an honest, accountable, predictable budget process."
Freshman Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) added that if individual Americans engaged in the same financial gimmickry that their government gets away with, "We’d be broke and we’d be in jail."
Republicans believe that given the common-sense nature of the reforms they are proposing, Democrats will be hard-pressed to oppose the Honest Budget Act. The bill "will create more honesty, more fairness, more ability for the American people to understand how much Congress is spending," Sessions told reporters. "I think in the end, few if any of these proposals would engender any real good-government objections."
Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) told reporters he had already begun to reach out to House Democrats, many of whom are "intrigued" by the idea of honest budgeting. In any event, the Republican-led House is almost certain to approve the legislation. The real challenge will be convincing Reid, who has said it would be "foolish" for Democrats to propose a budget, to bring the measure up for a vote in the Senate.