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The Briefing: Why Congress is like an AMC Pacer

WASHINGTON – If you bought an AMC Pacer in 1975, and if it broke down 20 times over 43 years, you might think about getting a new car – one that worked, and that didn't look like a bubble about to burst.

Congress apparently doesn't think that way. Despite 42 years of government shutdowns and a growing gap between the money government collects and what it spends, it's sticking with the AMC Pacer of American government: the 1974 law that made a mess of the federal budgeting process.

You've probably heard plenty about the 2019 budget President Trump released this week, but you've probably never heard of something far more important: the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Congress passed that bill to grab budgeting power back from President Richard Nixon. In the perfect world the bill's authors imagined, Congress would pass a budget resolution every year, then pass 12 appropriations bills to set aside money to pay for programs.

It hasn't worked that way.

In the first 198 years of the republic, Congress never failed in its most basic duty: funding the government to keep it going. But between 1974 and 2017, Congress failed at that task 18 times, creating 18 government shutdowns, tacking on two more this year for good measure.

On top of that, Congress hasn't passed its 12 spending bills on time since 1996. Instead lawmakers dawdle, passing one temporary spending measure after another to keep the government running for a few weeks or months, before settling on a huge slapdash funding bill called an "omnibus" that hits the public with more and more spending.

It all adds up to an ugly bottom line. In the first 198 years of the Republic, Congress managed to amass a national debt of less than $1 trillion. But now it's upward of $20 trillion, having rocketed skyward almost immediately after the 1974 budget law passed.

Given that history, don't you think our problem might start with the law rather than the lawmakers?

Plenty of think-tank types – along with Buffalo-area Reps. Brian Higgins and Tom Reed – think so.

And here are some ideas they have that could help fix things:

  • Break up the budget. There's good borrowing and bad borrowing. Good borrowing, like taking out a mortgage, makes sense over time. Bad borrowing, like taking out a payday loan to go to the Seneca Niagara Casino, is insane. But the current federal budget doesn't distinguish between the two. That's why Reed, a Corning Republican, suggests considering some sort of capital budget for long-term government investments like highways and military bases, and another pay-as-you-go budget to cover operations. Others have suggested a third budget to cover entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare – to highlight the fact that they are running out of money and force Congress to fix the problem.
  • Biennial budgeting. Reed and others suggest Congress draw up spending plans two years at a time and make them stick. Doing so would free Congress to do more oversight and real legislating while freeing the nation from being forever subjected to endless budget back-and-forth.
  • Put some teeth in the process. Lawmakers now pass temporary "continuing resolutions" to fund government for weeks at a time because they can – but what if we banned continuing resolutions? What if the law said that if Congress didn't pass its appropriations bills, spending would continue at the previous year's levels – but members of Congress could not go on recess (a Brookings Institution idea) and not get paid (my idea)? This would end the shutdown showdowns forever for sure.
  • Bring back earmarks. Banned seven years ago and derided as wasteful pork-barrel spending, earmarks were actually the cheap grease that kept the budget gears turning for decades. Now Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat – and even Trump – suggest it might be time to bring them back, just to make the congressional budget process work more smoothly and maybe even more frugally. After all, a lawmaker might be willing to make a billion-dollar cut in a wasteful program if it's in a spending bill with a million-dollar bridge in his district.

These are just some of many ideas for fixing the budget process.

Of course, if the 1974 budget act proved anything at all, it proved that ideas sometimes don't work out as planned.

Still, Congress has at least 20 trillion reasons why it might want to consider a different approach to budgeting – before that AMC Pacer of a budget law drives the nation off a fiscal cliff.

Happening today

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Jackson presides at a status conference of the government's case charging Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign manager, with conspiracy, money laundering and other federal charges ... The House Budget Committee and Senate Finance Committee hold hearings on Trump's Fiscal 2019 budget proposal ... Trump will meet with lawmakers to discuss his infrastructure proposal, then hold a separate session to discuss the "Opportunity Zones" in the recently passed tax overhaul legislation ... The Senate continues its slow slog toward (maybe) developing immigration legislation that would help young "Dreamers" brought to America illegally by their parents.

Good reads

The talk of the town this Valentine's Day comes from the New York Times' Maggie Haberman, whose scoop tells us that Trump's lawyer paid $130,000 out of his own pocket to Stormy Daniels, the porn star who says she had an affair with Trump more than a decade ago ... Meantime, Vox tries to make sense out of the Trump administration's twisting and turning explanations of the Rob Porter firing ... My former boss, former Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan, says White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' handling of the Porter mess is a new low in the history of Trump press briefings ... Politico notes that on the campaign trail in the #MeToo era, Bill Clinton is too toxic for the Democrats ... And lest we forget, the Times tells us that the Russians are still at it, trying to sow discord in America and sway the 2018 elections.

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