Long-Term Budgeting by a Short-Term Congress

The only budgets a Congress has control over are those that fall within its two-year term.  Nevertheless, a Congress may pretend that it can set its spending priorities in stone so that a future Congress must do what it "dictates."  The 112th Congress, the current one, tried to do this in the Budget Control Act of 2011, which triggers sequesters (automatic spending cuts) over the next several years.  Such dictates amount to congressional malpractice, as no Congress can dictate to another Congress.

The control a Congress has over even its own budgets is limited.  Several things can happen that can undo the budget of a Congress.  For instance, there can be emergencies and natural disasters, like hurricane Katrina, which necessitate unexpected spending.  Until Richard Nixon, presidents could impound funds -- that is, not spend funds that Congress has appropriated.  Or the Supreme Court might strike down a new program for which Congress has made appropriations, such as ObamaCare.  The Court did in fact strike down the Gramm-Rudman act of 1985, an earlier attempt at sequestration.

More importantly, the next Congress can override the spending that a Congress stipulates in its second (and final) budget.  That's because 75 percent of the fiscal year of their final budget will occur in the first year of the next Congress.  The next Congress can assert its own will and undo the budget of the last Congress.  The next Congress can enact new tax rates and make them retroactive, as we saw with the tax hikes of 1993.  The next Congress can enact new spending, as we saw with the stimulus package and omnibus spending bill of 2009.  The next Congress can back out already approved spending through rescissions.  For good or ill, all such actions can throw the final budget of a Congress out of whack.

The budget that a Congress can expect to have the most control over is its first budget -- the one that goes into effect about nine months after the congressmen take office and which will completely play out while they are still in office.  What this all means for the federal deficit is that if spending cuts don't take place in the first year of a Congress, they may never happen -- at least not without the acquiescence of a future Congress.  Spending cuts that are "scheduled" to happen beyond the term of a Congress are fraudulent.

It can be difficult to correctly assign responsibility for federal budgets in odd-numbered years (i.e., those fiscal years that span two Congresses).  If the actions or inactions of a new Congress affect spending or revenue that occurs during their first nine months, then they should be held at least partly responsible for the budget they inherited.  If the final budget of the last Congress is running a massive deficit and the new Congress doesn't do anything to improve the deficit it inherited, then the new Congress should be held partly responsible for that.  The new Congress can't just throw up its hands and say that the current deficit is all the fault of the last Congress.  The new Congress may not have the numbers to override the last Congress's spendthrift budget, but it must try to do so or be held partly responsible for the deficit.

With the advent of the Pelosi-Reid-Obama axis, Congress stopped producing its annual budget, despite the Constitution's injunction to do so.  But when the House changed hands in 2011, America continued to be left without a budget.  That's because the Senate wouldn't take up the budgets the new GOP House sent them.  An argument might be made that the blame for the deficits of the last two years should be laid at the feet of Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, who as majority leader hasn't allowed the Senate to vote on a budget.  (In lieu of a budget, Reid seems to be comfortable with just raising the debt ceiling by a trillion or two every few months.)

Our corrupt media has managed to get the American public to believe that it is the president who is responsible for the budget, not Congress.  At a fundraiser in Baltimore on June 12, President Obama demonstrated that he doesn't understand the federal budget when he said (italics added):

I love listening to these guys give us lectures about debt and deficits.  (Laughter.)  I inherited a trillion-dollar deficit.  (Laughter.)  We had a surplus; they turned it into a deficit -- built in a structural deficit that extends for decades. ...

We signed $2 trillion of spending cuts into law.  I laid out a detailed plan for a total of $4 trillion in deficit reduction.  My opponent won't admit it, but ... spending under my administration has grown more slowly than under any President in 60 years.  (Applause.)

So this notion that somehow we caused the deficits is just wrong.  (Laughter.)  It's just not true.  And anybody who looks at the math will tell you it's not true.  And if they start trying to give you a bunch of facts and figures suggesting that it's true, what they're not telling you is, is that they baked all this stuff into the cake with those tax cuts and a prescription drug plan that they didn't pay for, and the war.  So all this stuff is baked in[.]

What the president "won't admit" is that the deficit he "inherited" came out of the Democrat Congress he was a member of.  Back in 2008 when he was a U.S. senator, Mr. Obama may even have voted for some of the spending he now laments.  So who's inheriting what from whom?  (The speech from which the above excerpt was taken can been seen in its entirety at C-SPAN here.  But, if you don't think you can stomach all 37 minutes of it, then go here or here for the two-minute clip that starts where the above quote starts.  It's quite revealing.)

The takeaway from this speech is that Obama accepts no responsibility for the 2009 deficit -- the deficit he bequeathed himself.  Nor does Obama accept blame for any deficit since 2009, alleging that "they" built in a "structural deficit" that, supposedly, he and his party can't do anything about.  But the built-in "structural deficit" the president refers to is as nothing compared to the structural deficits wrought by our older entitlement programs, like Medicare.  (David Limbaugh at World Net Daily nicely captures the cynicism in the speech.)

For our purposes, however, the big problem with the speech is the "$2 trillion of spending cuts" and the "$4 trillion in deficit reduction" that Obama claims.  Such spending cuts cannot be imposed upon a future Congress.  The reason we have elections is so that we can change course, and not have to abide by earlier decisions.  Obama, of all people, should understand that.

One of the bright lights in Congress, Tea Party favorite Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), beautifully limns out the issue at hand:

We here in this Congress cannot bind the Congress that will be sworn into power in January of 2013, or January of 2015, or January of 2017. We can't bind a future Congress. We can make suggestions that they can follow, but we can't bind them. Unless of course we choose to do that which has been done only 27 times in our nation's history, which is amend the Constitution. That will bind a future Congress [terrific video].

If a spending cut is not happening in the here and now, it's illusory at best.  More likely, it's a damned lie designed to get someone through an election.  If America can get a decent Congress come January, serious spending cuts will happen in 2013.

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.

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