Stopping the Washington, D.C shutdown games

Rob Portman
Washington must change its spending-as-usual habit. The federal government is already $16 trillion in debt, and is borrowing an additional $4 billion every day. Future generations will be on the hook for this enormous debt.

We can all agree that burying our children and grandchildren in a mountain of debt is not fair. But in terms of solutions, drowning them in a tidal wave of taxes is no better than drowning them in debt. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has demonstrated that taxes would have to be increased to levels we’ve never seen before to try to catch up with current projections of federal spending.

There’s a better way. Instead of asking the American people to pay excessive taxes that would take an already weak economy into a free fall, Washington needs to tighten its belt. And for that, we need a more rational budget process.

That is why last week I introduced the End Government Shutdowns Act, which would force Congress to exercise fiscal responsibility.

Approximately 36 percent of federal spending – called discretionary spending – must be appropriated by Congress each year (the rest of the budget, called mandatory spending, grows quickly every year, a problem in and of itself). If this discretionary spending is not approved by the October 1 fiscal new year, the unfunded programs shut down, as has happened briefly a number of times in modern history.

These government shutdowns cause all kinds of disruptions. For example, National Parks close, visa and passport requests aren’t processed, many benefits, including veterans health programs and military pay are affected, so Congress races to approve last-minute budget deals to keep these programs running. But this creates its own problems.

The threat of government shutdowns bullies lawmakers into approving poorly drafted, budget-busting spending bills. Over the past decade, news reports have been filled with stories of lawmakers rushing to approve 11th hour, 1,000-plus-page spending bills – that most Members of Congress haven’t even had time to read – and that contain thousands of earmarks and special-interest perks, all to ensure that spending is approved before a government shutdown would occur.

The End Government Shutdowns Act will end this exhibition of government at its worst. It will ensure that any discretionary program whose budget has not been enacted by the October 1 fiscal new year will see its funding continue at the prior year’s level, then begin to be slowly reduced until its regular spending bill can be enacted.

Americans will no longer be held hostage by the threat of a government shutdown, and this will save taxpayers money. As an example, when the government shut down for 21 days in the mid-1990s, lawmakers responded to the understandable public frustration by swallowing large spending increases for the next decade just to avoid any standoff that could risk another shutdown.

Setting a default option of freezing discretionary spending at the prior year’s level would actually keep spending below the multiyear spending caps that passed in 2011. And continuing to reduce spending until the regular process is followed adds the right kind of leverage to the process. Under my bill, if the underlying spending bills have still not been enacted after 120 days into the new fiscal year, spending levels will be reduced by 1 percentage point – and then reduced by another 1 percent every 90 days.

While a simple freeze is better than an expensive last-minute deal, it is still no substitute for lawmakers actually doing the important work of completing the spending bills one at a time – and using good data to eliminate or improve programs that don’t work, and support those that do. This is the constitutional duty of Congress, the so-called power of the purse. Unfortunately, under Democrat leadership, the United States Senate seems to have abandoned that role by not even passing a budget for three years and not bringing a single one of the 12 spending bills to the Senate floor this year. My bill would be an incentive for Congress to start governing again, doing the work the Constitution envisioned.

The commonsense, bipartisan basis for the bill shows in the support it has. Thus far, 21 Senators – both Republican and Democrat – have agreed to cosponsor the bill.

It’s timely, too. With no spending bills having been completed, and the fiscal new year approaching, news broke this week that House and Senate leaders have come close to an agreement on a six-month extension of discretionary programs with a 0.4 percent increase.

Our bill takes what they’ve done, makes it automatic, eliminates the increases, and eventually cuts spending. That’s a win for the taxpayer.

No more government shutdowns. No more disruptions in services when Congress can’t complete its work. And less pressure for expensive, last-minute, 1,000-page spending bills. Those are all good reasons to support our commonsense approach in the End Government Shutdowns Act.

Rob Portman is a United States Senator from Ohio.