Congress should remember that every bill comes due

Posted 12/29/20

After weeks of intense negotiations and delay, Congress passed a new $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus package and a $1.4 trillion spending bill last week.

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Congress should remember that every bill comes due


After weeks of intense negotiations and delay, Congress passed a new $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus package and a $1.4 trillion spending bill last week.

The bipartisan spending deal was like all the others in recent memory, with legislators stuffing in various pet projects to get enough members on board with the packages.

Beyond things like direct payments to Americans, support for small businesses, the extension of additional unemployment benefits and funding for COVID-19 vaccines, there are plenty of other items, including some that will be welcomed by Wyomingites. For instance, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said he helped secure $64 million for road and bridge projects in the state within the COVID bill.

“These additional highway funds will create jobs and help keep our economy moving,” Barrasso said. “In Wyoming, our highways are essential to our success.”

Meanwhile, in a provision tucked inside the omnibus spending bill, Congress reauthorized funding for community health centers for the next three years. That should help to continue the work of Powell’s Heritage Health Center, which has become an important part of the medical care offered in our area.

And the list goes on … and on. The $2.3 trillion package signed by President Donald Trump on Sunday weighed in at 5,593 pages, with more than 3,000 pages being miscellaneous legislation, The Associated Press reported.

Given that length and complexity, it’s unlikely that any representatives or senators knew every detail before voting on the legislation. And frankly, that’s ludicrous.

Outgoing U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., has long been a critic of Congress’ M.O. of haphazardly spending money it doesn’t have.

“Fiscal reform is needed now if we hope to avoid disaster,” Enzi says on his webpage.

He’s suggested various ways of getting a better handle on the national debt and the federal budget — from effectively eliminating wasteful government shutdowns, to balancing the budget within five years (by cutting spending by just 1% a year) to budgeting biennially as the State of Wyoming does. Switching to a two-year funding cycle would reduce the likelihood of omnibus spending bills, “which are inefficient and too often loaded with wasteful spending,” Enzi wrote, prior to the creation and passage of the current package.

In the U.S. capital, however, where soundbites and partisanship are king, Enzi’s sober suggestions have never really caught on. After all, it’s not a lot of fun to hear that the federal government’s seemingly endless piles of cash are not actually endless.

Consider the substantial backlash that one of President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming deputy chiefs of staff, Bruce Reed, has drawn from progressive groups, who don’t like Reed’s reputation as a “budget hawk.”

According to Robert Kuttner at the liberal publication The American Prospect, one of Reed’s cardinal sins was serving as the executive director of President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. We would suggest that’s actually a selling point.

That national commission, co-chaired by former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, R-Cody, laid out a path to get America back on stable financial footing. The controversial plan, however, effectively went nowhere after drawing fire from both the left (for suggesting cuts to programs like Medicare and Social Security) and the right (for suggesting some higher taxes).

In a November piece for The American Prospect, Kuttner said the commission was one of Obama’s “biggest blunders” and that he hopes President-elect Biden will prioritize recovery efforts and “large-scale, deficit-financed public investments” over reducing our debt.

“But the undertow of conventional wisdom, bad fiscal advice, and old Washington cronies remains potent,” Kuttner wrote.

He’s right about the enduring influence of the D.C. establishment, but he has it backwards: It’s deficit spending with all the momentum. Consider that, since Sen. Simpson and his co-chair, Erskine Bowles, released their 2010 report, the national debt has only grown — rising from roughly $13.6 trillion to $26.9 trillion as of October. It’s not hard to explain, either: Spending money makes constituents happy and cuts do not. However, as painful as changes may be, our federal government must come to grips with the fact that every bill eventually comes due.

Let’s hope the incoming administration and Congress begin 2021 with the national debt firmly in mind.