Debate begins over the future of the federal budget

Published 5:14 pm Monday, November 7, 2005

By By Jo Bonner
Last week the American people were presented an opportunity to see a rare sight in Washington: a clearly defined debate over the future of the federal budget. On one side of the debate, there is a carefully crafted budget-reform bill that restrains federal spending by $53 billion, and on the other side of the debate, opponents are fiercely trying to shield and even increase every dollar the federal government is set to spend in the upcoming fiscal year. I want to take this opportunity to explain why we are having this debate now.
Earlier this year, Congress passed the Fiscal Year 2006 Budget Resolution, which laid out a plan to create jobs, control spending, and reduce the deficit. The House passed a budget that called for almost $70 billion in savings from mandatory spending programs, which draw money from the federal treasury every year. This budget attempted to address this largest and least sustainable portion of our budget by reducing the rate of growth of certain bloated federal programs. The $70 billion in savings found in the House budget was brought down to no less than $35 billion after negotiations with the Senate.
This savings is in addition to actual reforms of certain entitlement programs like Medicaid, welfare programs, farm subsidies, and food stamps. Many of these entitlement programs were created decades ago and are in desperate need of reform. Over time, they need to be modernized and improved to keep up with innovations in technology and changes in the marketplace.
Other priorities such as education, veterans' benefits and health care will be crowded out by these outdated entitlement programs if we do not reform them. Every year these programs account for a greater percentage of federal spending. Today, they consume about 54% of the total budget, and based on current growth, they will consume 62% of the total budget in just ten years. Budget reconciliation is one of the few tools Congress has to reform mandatory spending, and this year's budget marks the first time since 1997 that Congress has used this process.
The $35 billion minimum savings package agreed to in the spring would not completely solve our long-term spending problem. In fact, the total amount of savings in this bill is less than one-half of one percent of the total mandatory spending projected over the next five years. These savings are a small but necessary step.
Our economic outlook was good. We were continuing to see steady, strong economic and jobs growth, and we were seeing dramatic reductions in the deficit.
Then Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, hitting us with the worst natural disaster on record. Everything changed in an instant.
Within days, Congress approved more than $62 billion to help those victims. Hurricane Rita followed, and just last week, President Bush requested $7.1 billion from Congress in order to protect our nation from a possible influenza pandemic.
Clearly, Congress must remain committed to doing whatever is necessary to recover, but at the same time, we must understand that our obligation does not end with writing big checks. Congress must present a federal budget dynamic enough to assume these costs. If we do not make reforms now, we will not be able to address these types of needs in the future.
In order for the federal budget to absorb these unexpected spending priorities, Congress looked for additional savings opportunities. In the House, each committee was asked to find additional savings, and they did-almost another $19 billion. The end result of all this work is the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, a bill now moving through the House and Senate. This will produce permanent budget savings by restraining immediate spending and providing long-term reforms.
Traditionally, those on the other side of the aisle have opposed any reduction in mandatory spending through entitlement programs. Sadly, they look at the entire $2 trillion federal budget and see no excess. Instead, their announced proposal is to raise taxes making the government even bigger than it already is.
This debate is an important opportunity to reassert our commitment to limited government and fiscal discipline. We must begin by making a down payment on emergency spending and be more realistic in our spending.
Jo Bonner is a U.S. congressman. His column appears weekly.

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