The recent spending and debt deal clearly illustrates that the federal budget process is in serious need of reform. America’s current budget challenges are directly related to this breakdown and fixing it can put the country on a more responsible spending path going forward.
If there was any doubt that the federal budget process is broken, consider this: Congress has passed budget resolutions in less than half of the last 15 fiscal years, and prior to this year's balanced budget resolution, the last time we passed a 10-year balanced budget was in 2001. In fact the annual appropriations process has been completed on time in only four of the past 40 years. In that same period, Congress has passed 173 short term spending bills to avoid a government shutdown for an average of 186 days per year – over half of the year. The congressional budget process that was put in place more than 40 years ago is in desperate need of reform.
Duplication, fraud, waste and spending with no current authority in federal programs is also rampant across government, but the Government Accountability Office’s annual list of offending programs has yet to force meaningful legislative action. Program authority, where congressional committees review programs for validation, transparency and measurable goals, are often ignored. Last year, the government spent $293.5 billion on 260 expired programs, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
We can see this budgetary and fiscal dysfunction represented in Congress' dismal approval ratings. Generally, a well-functioning budget process strengthens democracy giving citizens a better idea of government's role and provides them with the knowledge that their tax dollars are being spent wisely. When the process breaks down, so does the people's faith in government and their elected officials.
The “power of the purse” is one of the most important constitutional roles of Congress. Its authority to tax and spend must be exercised by the representatives of the people so that they can hold government accountable. With this great power, our Founding Fathers also instilled a great responsibility – they understood that constant review was critical to spending these funds wisely and effectively, and without it, the bureaucracy would run amok. Congress, therefore, has a constitutional duty to use its regular, deliberative and transparent process to exercise the power of the purse and provide effective oversight to keep government accountable. The biggest mistake we could make as an institution would be to forfeit that power to the executive branch.