A Key Reform for Budget Process Reform

Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg’s “Stop Over-Spending” (SOS) plan, announced last week aims at reinstating tight fiscal controls — after letting them erode over many years by gutting pay-as-you-go budget rules and pushing through massive supplemental spending outside of the regular budget process.

The proposal includes a line-item veto for the President to cut wasteful spending and a bipartisan commission for devising solutions to entitlement program shortfalls. 

Its main focus, however, is to set deficit caps tied to mandatory spending cuts similar to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Control Act from the mid-1980s.  That act, however, proved ineffective and had to be revised multiple times.

The key to whether lawmakers are really serious about budget process reform is whether proposed changes are based on short-term deficit measures or forward-looking long-term unfunded obligation measures. 

Spending control laws based on short-term budget measures are likely to mislead policymakers into adopting inadequate or inappropriate reforms.  Imagine if we were to determine the need for Social Security reform based on its net cash flow today–which is in surplus.

And we’ve been here before–we thought the pay-as-you-go constraints from the Budget Enforcement Act had done their job and turned them off in 2002–only to see a federal spending spree like never before.  If adopted (which appears unlikely) SOS may work for a time, but history is likely to repeat itself.

The key to a budget process is the budget measures on which spending constraints are based.  Using the same old budget measures will not deliver a new process.  It’s time to make fundamental changes by adopting more appropriate fiscal yardsticks.  Unless budget measures fully reflect the budget problems that lie ahead and correctly reflect the consequences of policy changes, we will continue to lurch from one reform to the next without making any improvement–at best.