Faculty Journal Posted on Wednesday, December 14, 2016

President-Elect Trump Needs to Tell Congress to Do Its Job and Fix the Dysfunctional Budget Process

Charles Tien Professor of Political Science, Hunter College & The Graduate Center

As Chairman of the House Budget Committee in 2013,  House Speaker Paul Ryan, supported the “No Budget, No Pay Act, ”  which passed in the Republican-controlled House, but not the Senate. The bill proposed that both houses of Congress simply follow the law and pass a budget resolution, as required by the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act, if members wanted to continue getting paid. This fiscal year, with Paul Ryan as Speaker, the House failed to pass a budget resolution, yet all members of Congress are still getting paid.

In defense of congressional inaction on a budget resolution, one  might think that not paying members of Congress is too harsh.  After all, the federal government can still operate as long as the members pass 12 separate government spending (appropriations) bills by the start of the fiscal year, which was October 1st. But at the time of this writing, Congress has not passed one single regular appropriations bill on time, and has still not even passed a combined spending bill (known as a continuing resolution, or CR) for the rest of the fiscal year.

With the presidential election now over, could one assume that members of Congress were  simply putting off doing their jobs until the election was over? No need to do anything important like pass a budget or hold a confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court nominee when your party has  won the White House, right? Especially since  they had already negotiated a difficult budget way back with President Obama in 2011 that averted a debt-ceiling crisis and set the federal budget on a path to lower deficits through sequestration, right?

Wait, what’s sequestration?

Sequestration is a budget mechanism invented back in the 1980s as part of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Acts when deficits were out of control. Gramm-Rudman-Hollings set annual deficit reduction targets for Congress and the president to meet. If members of Congress failed to do their jobs of making tough budgetary decisions—meaning, if they could not decide which programs to cut or which taxes to raise to meet the deficit reduction targets—then automatic cuts to discretionary programs (essentially everything except entitlements) would occur. These automatic cuts, called sequestration, would fall equally on defense and non-defense discretionary programs. It was believed that Democrats would want to avert cuts to social-welfare spending and Republicans to defense spending, so they would be compelled to pass budgets and spending bills. No such luck in today’s hyper-partisan, dysfunctional Congress.

So the current Congress does not even prioritize programs or revenue options—it just lets sequestration make the tough choices for them. Members of Congress take to the floor and speak on behalf of veterans, but then let sequestration cut vital veterans’ programs like housing and mental health. Defenders of Congress might say that the legislative workload has increased in recent years, leaving less time for members to work on passing a budget. They may say that Congress is busy addressing climate change, ISIS, income inequality, criminal justice reform, and the global war on terror, among other things, so there is not enough time for them to pass a budget. Well, in 2016 the 114th Congress has been in session a total of 93 days from January 4th through August 31st. In comparison, the ‘Do-Nothing-Congress’ that President Truman ran against in 1948 was in session a total of 144 days.Even more troubling is that when Congress is in session, members spend more time on the phone, cold-calling for campaign donations than they do working on legislation.

President-elect Trump should tell Congress to start following the law and pass a budget resolution on time, which, by the way, they would need to do anyway to repeal and replace Obamacare. And if Congress is serious about not increasing the budget deficit and national debt, it should re-implement PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) budgeting rules that require all new direct spending (mostly entitlement spending) and tax cuts to be deficit neutral. This means if you are cutting taxes, you also have  to cut spending, because if you cut taxes without cutting spending, then the deficit will continue to increase. Likewise, if you increase spending, you have to raise revenues to pay for your new spending. Unfortunately, Congress does not have a good record on this and has slashed taxes  at the same time it has increased spending.

President-elect Trump should tell members of Congress to make the tough choices in the federal budget—after all, American citizens elect them to decide our spending priorities and how we pay for these priorities. Members of Congress should pass appropriations bills on time, and they should pass a budget resolution so we can see what their priorities are for the country. At a minimum, they should show up in the Capitol to do the work we elected them to do.

If members of Congress are not going to do their jobs, they should not get paid, as Speaker Ryan said. President-elect Trump has promised to ‘drain the swamp’ and fix Washington—he should start by telling Congress to get to work on reforming the budget process, or get out of the way so others can.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Charles Tien is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has served as department chair at Hunter College, and was selected to be a Fulbright Scholar in American Politics at Renmin University in Beijing, China. He has taught classes on American politics, women and minorities in politics, voting and elections, American foreign policy, research methods, and polling. He has published over 30 scholarly articles, most recently in Presidential Studies Quarterly, and International Journal of Forecasting. He received his BA from the University of Michigan, and his PhD. from the University of Iowa.