Congress to Embrace Its Favorite Pastime, Kicking the Can

Congress to Embrace Its Favorite Pastime, Kicking the Can

Election cycles can be unfriendly to serious policy debates on critical issues, such as Washington’s ongoing addiction to excessive government spending and debt. The circus of this election cycle has been particularly devoid of serious discussion on this paramount problem. We see minimal concern that deficits are growing again, no serious solutions being offered to control the exploding federal debt and a failure to recognize the overdue need to rein in the government’s major entitlement programs. Instead, members of Congress from both parties are hoping to avoid yet another last-minute tussle over the annual federal budget process so they can focus on November’s high-stakes elections.

Veronique De Rugy1

With Congress facing an Oct. 1 deadline to avoid a government shutdown, it looks as if a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government funded is likely to happen. Talking on the Senate floor this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced, “I expect to move forward this week on a continuing resolution through Dec. 9 … and include funds for Zika control and for our veterans.” In other words, McConnell and company want to kick the can past the elections, which, if history is a guide, means the lame-duck Congress coming back in December to finalize a fiscally irresponsible budget deal will make fiscal matters worse, not better.

House Freedom Caucus conservatives oppose a short-term continuing resolution and are demanding the passage of a longer-term CR that would allow the next president and Congress to hash out a final budget agreement. They argue that a lame-duck Congress and president would be likelier to pass a bloated spending bill in December, when a number of policymakers will have less reason to care. One benefit of passing a CR into next year is that it could temper the awful cycle of budgeting by crisis, which has become the norm in recent years. It also would increase the chances of keeping the spending caps put in place in 2011 from being violated, which has happened in previous end-of-the-year rushes from Congress.

It’s a sad state of affairs, however, if the most we can get in terms of a debate over spending is how long of a CR Congress should pass. First, a fight over a potential government shutdown in October wouldn’t be so disastrous as many claim (and Republican leaders believe). Second, in the grand scheme of our budget problems, the debate over whether a short-term CR would be better than a long-term CR is somewhat meaningless. Neither would address the real budget problems we face, nor would any CR shrink the size and scope of government by actually eliminating programs. Instead, the fight will be over bottom-line numbers, which the average American understands little about anyway. On top of that, the piece of the budget Congress is fighting over (discretionary spending) is a smaller (and declining) share of overall federal spending.

Now, it’s true that Republicans have shown a willingness to fight on some issues and stand firmly behind some policy positions, but these fights usually involve side issues, such as cutting off Planned Parenthood funding. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund Planned Parenthood in particular, but it would be nice for a change to see Republicans make the case that the federal government shouldn’t be funding family planning services at all. But just like the Republican-led battle to stop ACORN from receiving federal funds a few years ago, it appears that the GOP’s desire to save taxpayers a few bucks has more to do with politics than it does with concerns about government spending.

Sadly, the Republican presidential candidate supports more military spending, busting the budget caps yet again and protecting the lumbering system of federal entitlement programs that threaten the prosperity of America’s younger generations. That’s unfortunate, but if measured in terms of what Republicans have accomplished in the past 30 years, it isn’t much different from the position of the average Republican member of Congress. Granted, the average Republican will now symbolically vote for ending the Affordable Care Act, yet when push comes to shove, Republican members of Congress can’t be counted on to support sensible cuts to Medicare or bringing individual choice to Social Security. So whether we get a short-term CR or we get a long-term CR, the message from congressional Republicans and the party’s presidential aspirant appears to be that the only thing that matters is winning elections.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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