Congress' Massive To-Do List

Lawmakers need to address Syria, the debt ceiling and sequestration, all in a short time period.

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Congress came back to town this week and there is plenty to do in the brief time both chambers are in session during September.

First, there is the matter of determining just what course of action the United States should take in Syria, and the political and financial costs of that action. Not one of the dozen appropriations bills that fund government has made it to the  president's desk. Considering that the fiscal year ends September 30, the only way to avoid a shutdown is to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government operating. Finally, sometime in mid-October, the government will reach the debt limit. In the absence of Congressional action to raise the limit, the United States will default on its obligations and further damage our credit rating and standing in the world.

Of the nine legislative days Congress will be in session this month, we know they'll be spending at least the first few debating Syria. The Senate is poised to vote on a resolution giving the president authority to strike and House leadership has indicated the matter will be considered next week.

This is a difficult issue that demands serious consideration and open debate. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., has named his price: shelter the Department of Defense from the effects of sequestration budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. He supports the strikes but says he (and many of his colleagues) won't vote for it unless billions of dollars of deficit reduction is jettisoned. This transactional approach to war neither illuminates the difficulties of the situation in Syria nor the challenges with our national finances.

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

As for appropriations, in the 18 years since the last time all the appropriations bills were passed before the end of the fiscal year, we've come to accept continuing resolutions as a standard way of doing business. But using short term funding bills to routinely fund government operations is a wasteful practice that ensures inefficiencies at a time when we need every agency to make the most of every dollar.

Continuing resolutions often (usually) prevent agencies from budgeting for current and future demands and force them to base spending on past decisions. Add those pressures to the problems created by sequestration – which cuts equally from the highest performing programs and the lowest –and government agencies are being asked to work with more than one hand tied behind their back. This is, of course, why McKeon wants sequestration reversed for the Department of Defense.

And so we come to the debt ceiling. It is worth remembering what the debt ceiling is, and what it isn't. As many members of Congress like to remind us, the legislative branch alone has the power of the purse – the power to tax, the power to spend and the power to borrow. If Congress doesn't affirmatively increase the amount of credit the United States uses to fund its ongoing operations, we will reach our credit limit and stop paying our bills.

It is an important matter and Congress should address it responsibly – which would most easily be done by a straightforward vote to increase the limit – and then turn to the far more challenging issue of our nation's debt and long-term finances. Reaching the debt limit is a natural time to think about ways to put the nation's financial house in order and must be done, but playing chicken with default is irresponsible.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Our current national debt of more than $16.7 trillion was achieved, simply put, by habitually spending more money than we take in. In good times and bad, our appetite for goods and services – from infrastructure to social security to public safety – supplied by the government has exceeded our willingness to pay for those services, however critical they might be.

There are two sides to this equation – either you reduce spending or you increase revenues. Ideally, you do both. We need constant fiscal vigilance to make sure we are spending our tax dollars wisely; entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare need to be put on sounder financial footing; and we also need comprehensive tax reform that increases revenue and makes the system simpler and more fair.

The debate over raising the debt ceiling in 2011 spawned the Budget Control Act and sequestration – a budget cutting device deemed so awful that Congress would have get serious and come up with $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction or feel the meat axe blade of across-the-board cuts. Instead, over the last two years we have learned that lawmakers fear getting serious about the budget and setting priorities a lot more than they do sequestration.

It's well past time for the finger pointing, empty gestures, unrealistic budgets, political posturing and years of budgetary dysfunction to end. Policymakers have put themselves in this jam, and it's time to walk and chew gum. Figure out Syria, enact a budget, deal with the debt ceiling and get serious about responsible sequestration replacements. That's why you were sent to Washington, so do your job. Or voters will have to find some who will.

Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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