A Federated Approach Toward a Federated Approach

a fellow contributor here at United Liberty, wrote an interesting piece yesterday about the wisdom of not passing an all-encompassing federal budget, even in light of the chaos currently surrounding the shutdown over what gets passed as a continuing resolution and what, in the case of Obamacare, gets funded at all.

Some have argued that mandating the passage of a federal budget — and by “mandate” I mean actually tied to consequences for not doing so — is one way to prevent future shutdowns. But as DesOrmeaux argues, this may not be the most effective way to skin — or herd — a cat:

Many say we have to be responsible and pass a real budget. But the truth is the concept of a single federal budget is actually pretty new. While the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 created the first federal budget process, it wasn’t until the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 that the current version of mandatory budget proposals and resolutions was adopted. For the 150-200 years before that, all federal funding was appropriated with specific bills for programs or departments.

A single federal budget is, as we have seen over the last few years, both the cause and casualty of Congressional division. When the entire government is funded with one bill, a stalemate over that bill can be disastrous. Many have argued recently that the founders intended the Constitution to foster inaction and gridlock. And while that is certainly true given the many checks and balances required for most action, the founders didn’t envision the funding of the whole government to be a single process subject to those forces. In fact, the word “budget” does not even appear in the Constitution. (Though some would like it to.)

It’s an interesting argument, calling the mandatory budget the very reason stalemates exist at all. And there’s probably a lot of truth to that. If, as DesOrmeaux suggests, we had single appropriations for each program’s spending, Obamacare would be the only thing at issue in the Obamacare debate. It wouldn’t, by virtue of a federated system of appropriations, be tied to a larger CR and could be debated on its own merits alone.

However, there’s another great piece in today’s Wall Street Journal that makes a similar case with one caveat: there is room for improvement as regards the shutdown for sure, and that improvement must involve changing the law:

To avoid future stalemates like the current one, making a legislative change is clearly imperative: The current debt-limit law, despite its name, operates to make the debt larger, not smaller. The law should be rewritten to mandate continuous spending restraint when debt exceeds the ceiling.

The author, David Malpass, president of Encima Global, LLC and former deputy assistant Treasury secretary under Reagan, appears to agree (without specifically mentioning an individual appropriations process) that an uncomfortable majority of federal spending is unjustified (he cites 80% as operating on “autopilot”), something that would naturally be addressed if each program was looked at individually and appropriated based on its merits alone. But he puts a great deal more weight on what can be done to address the system we have now, where all budget considerations can necessarily be tied to a discussion of the debt limit.

And fixing what’s broken requires that same federated and piecemeal approach that DesOrmeaux sees as useful for evaluating the worth of program spending.

Jettisoning useless, expensive programs; rewriting laws to mandate restraint when our debt exceeds the ceiling; inferring that the idea of a shutdown shouldn’t be feared and considered apocalyptic if it leads to some fiscal restraint. These are all suggestions that can be addressed one at a time:

To break the impasse, and to address the government’s disastrous finances, the president must lead the way. Mr. Obama has made clear that he will not change ObamaCare, but given the challenges the country faces, a blanket insistence on keeping the whole government unchanged isn’t defensible.

So, before we can get to Mr. DesOrmeaux’s quite reasonable plan of offering individual and distinct appropriations submissions to be funded as separate entities, we must take the same piecemeal approach to fixing the laws, regulations, and policies — real and precedented as “just the way things have always been done” — that keep us from thinking that change is a good idea.

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