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News & Observer - Stewardship, not just spending should be lawmakers' focus

June 20, 2014
In The News

News & Observer: Stewardship, not just spending should be lawmakers’ focus
6/20/14 by Matthew Leatherman
Last September Rep. David Price wrote a national column warning that “the appropriations process – that hallmark of Congress’ constitutional authority and wellspring of our power to conduct oversight and set national priorities – is on life support and in danger of total collapse.” He was largely borne out when splinter Republicans in the House forced a shut down for much of the following month.

The nine months since then have seen Congress re-establish some consensus about the importance of this process and enter its 2015 cycle with more commitment to the regular order. But Congress hasn’t advanced nearly far enough that we can take our federal financial stability for granted.

First a word of context. The appropriations process is Congress’ arcane ritual for financing the government. Declaring that Congress’ authority and power rest on the process itself overstates things a bit. That distinction belongs more to the ends achieved, setting the federal balance sheet, more than the path Congress takes to get there. Still Price is correct that the process is critically important.

At least two factors make this matter. First, both parties have long agreed that this process is an acceptable way to reach our fiscal decisions. Congress members agree on little these days, even less when it comes to spending decisions, so those tools that still can be used to manage our finances are especially important. Second, while Congress can finance the government without going through this process, oversight is better and decisions are more deliberate when it proceeds in the regular order.

This is about stewardship, not just spending.

When shut down is the benchmark, it’s not hard to improve on things. That’s nearly the lowest of standards. But that’s where we were last October, and Congress is doing better now. House Republicans and Senate Democrats reached a deal on top-level spending in December. Both chambers published their plans for allocating resources among federal agencies and, while those plans differ in how they get there, both stick to the deal. The House and Senate have since taken action to advance these plans, a precursor to the inevitable negotiations later this year about detailed spending decisions.

Respecting the process, as Price encouraged his colleagues to do, has already benefited the country in several quiet but critical ways. Congress has stepped back from the threat of shutdown or default. This gives our lenders some badly needed reassurance about our national creditworthiness, controls the risk of interest rate spikes and adds a degree of stability to the economy. Discipline in the halls of Congress also is firmer, making it just a bit easier to reach decisions. And, even though appropriations are likely to be late again, the markets already know largely what to expect in 2015.

This is improvement. Congress has started to repair itself in the nine months since Price broadcast his warning.

Relapse will be easy, though, because Congress has gotten back to business as usual without resolving the problems that have made things break down over the past several years.

Politically, Republicans look no more ready to deal with President Obama than they were last year. The party is pouring its energy into winning the Senate this November, but, no matter how that turns out, President Obama still will be sitting across the table for another full budget cycle. And financially, there still is a long-term, structural mismatch between the government’s revenue and spending.

North Carolina’s Erskine Bowles underlined both challenges at a national conference a few weeks ago. Calling this a “lull in the action,” Bowles admonished Washington that “the markets will wake up and they will look at us and say you have a dysfunctional government, you’re addicted to debt, your fiscal plan is unsustainable, and you have no plan to deal with it.”

That’s daunting, yet it’s no excuse for relapsing into the dysfunction that Price lamented in September. Congress deserves to be judged according to whether it can handle these challenges without sabotaging itself and the economy again. One part of this standard is exercising the oversight and committing to the deliberation inherent in the appropriations process each year, not just this year.

Price was right to underscore this responsibility, and we have benefited from the improvement Congress has made since then. Our expectation should be more of the same. The same chronic problems that have seized Washington for the past several years are still lurking, and overcoming them is going to require some first-order compromises. Congress should be able to get there without tearing apart its process for appropriating federal money.

Matthew Leatherman is a freelance contributor on state-level international affairs.