Time for Washington to focus on debt’s biggest drivers

Published 7:00 am Thursday, May 12, 2016

Any discussion of federal spending should begin by distinguishing between discretionary and mandatory expenditures.
Appropriations bills concern only discretionary spending, which is under the direct control of Congress and subject to strict budget enforcement rules. Mandatory spending, by contrast, is governed by statute. Sometimes referred to as direct payments, mandatory outlays for entitlement programs are by law not subject to annual appropriations. Under Republican control in Congress, there has been hardly any increase in discretionary spending for important government functions like defense, transportation, disease research, and natural disaster relief in recent years. So why does the national debt continue to mount?
The problem lies in the rapid rise of mandatory spending, which comprises approximately two-thirds of the federal budget. Of the $3.9 trillion in federal expenditures for 2016, $2.5 trillion was in nondiscretionary spending. This includes outlays for the three largest entitlement programs – Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The $19 trillion federal debt is increasing because these vital programs are growing faster than the economy.
Ensuring the Long-Term Viability of Social Security, Medicare
Allowing mandatory spending to continue on autopilot threatens to burden future generations with unsustainable debt, in part, because it diminishes the role the Founding Fathers intended Congress to play in controlling the budget. Fifty years ago, discretionary spending approved by Congress in annual appropriations bills made up the vast majority of the budget. By 2026, it could comprise a mere 23 percent, with the rest devoted to mandatory spending and paying interest on the federal debt.
In order to slow this rate of growth, Congress will have to pass new legislation that addresses mandatory spending, and the President will have to sign it into law.
During his time in office, the President has demanded more and more tax revenue to address the deficit rather than supporting structural spending reforms. The comprehensive, bipartisan recommendations from the Bowles-Simpson commission appointed by the President were all but ignored.
The goal of entitlement reform is not to threaten benefits but rather to preserve them, by enacting sensible changes to ensure their future viability.
An Open, Disciplined Approach to Appropriations
Since winning the majority in 2014, Senate Republicans have taken the annual appropriations process seriously. This year’s appropriations measures keep discretionary spending in check, adhering to spending caps set by the 2015 bipartisan budget agreement. The bills include less spending than the President’s 2017 budget and even less than the discretionary budgets of previous years. For example, funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service is the lowest it has been in years. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that discretionary spending will rise only at the rate of inflation over the next decade. The appropriations process is difficult in a divided government, where Congress has to reach agreements that the President will sign. The last time both houses of Congress were able to pass all appropriations bills individually was 1994.
But encouraging progress has already been made this year. Several appropriations bills have been reported out of committee, and one is currently being debated on the Senate floor. By passing spending measures in manageable increments, lawmakers have time for debate and amendments to ensure taxpayer dollars are used appropriately and efficiently.
This approach is much more open and disciplined than passing large funding packages through omnibus measures or continuing resolutions.
These deliberations and the tough decisions they entail are a crucial starting point for fixing the debt, and I hope we can build on this momentum. Our financial future depends on it.

By Senator Roger Wicker

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