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Published in Investor's Business Daily
Published in Investor's Business Daily
April 19, 2001
It's been more than five years since former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his band of Republican "revolutionaries" lost their nerve in a game of budgetary chicken with Bill Clinton that climaxed in a temporary suspension of some federal services. But the GOP apparently still hasn't gotten over it.
Proof that Republicans still are haunted by the ghosts of 1995 can be found in the new administration's first budget outline. It includes a proposal to end the possibility of future government shutdowns by automatically triggering a continuing resolution if a budget impasse extends beyond the start of a new fiscal year.
Until a new budget agreement is hammered out, federal spending would, if this proposal is adopted, automatically default to the prior year's funding levels or the president's proposed budget numbers, whichever are lower.
This "would remove incentives for the president or our congressional leadership to use the leverage of shutting down government to achieve spending objectives," according to the budget outline. But that is precisely what is wrong with it, and why it's not in the taxpayer's long-term interest. Though the proposal sounds reasonable at first, a more farsighted view suggests that it unwisely forecloses to a future president or Congress the use of a tactic that might be employed for legitimate and laudable purposes - to restrain runaway federal spending, for instance.
Bush's proposal actually encourages an abdication of each branch's constitutional duty to hammer out a federal budget in a timely fashion, in that it permits both branches to shirk that responsibility by putting even more of the budget process on blameless autopilot.
It may actually decrease the likelihood future federal spending bills will be passed on time by creating a budgetary fail-safe system that, because it kicks in automatically, softens the potential political fallout when budget deadlines are ignored. And it wrongly suggests to Americans that no principle, fiscal or otherwise, justifies the inconvenience or anxiety caused by even a temporary suspension of government services.
An automatic continuing resolution is a misguided solution for a nonproblem. Budget battles, even those leading to bureaucratic brownouts, as one did in 1995, are a necessary, if messy, consequence of constitutional checks and balances. They bring the public more directly - albeit belatedly - into a process from which it is largely excluded. And they can easily be avoided if Congress and the White House muster the discipline to properly execute their constitutional responsibilities.
Creating fail-safe systems for avoiding those responsibilities and insulating politicians from the political heat that making hard choices entails is popular these days, whether these systems take the form of base closure commissions, term limits, ironclad spending caps or balanced budget amendments. These devices may be well intended and born of understandable frustration with a system that falls short of its ideals. But such mechanisms, even when they succeed on one level, represent failure of a more fundamental sort.
The Bush administration's no-shutdown proposal signals failure not of the budget process, which so often gets the blame, but of people - our politicians, who lack discipline and courage.
If Congress and the White House can't get a budget passed on time, then the federal government should shut down and shut down completely (unlike in 1995) rather than automatically default to some kind of screen-saver mode so citizens won't notice.
This proposal seems particularly odd coming from a newly inaugurated president in an era when most chief executives have been much more protective of the office's eroded constitutional prerogatives. And it's especially troubling coming from a newly inaugurated Republican president, who is supposed to stand for fiscal discipline and a reduced reliance upon the federal government - neither of which will be advanced by the idea.
Only time will tell if its inclusion in this administration's first fiscal policy statement foreshadows a lack of steel in the inevitable budget battles to come. But it will almost certainly diminish any future president's leverage and options should he or she have reason to confront Congress. Or those of Congress, should it have cause to challenge a president.
Sean Paige is the Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market public policy group in Washington, D.C.
Copyright 2001 Investor's Business Daily, Inc.