As members of Congress start to sound resigned to the reality of sizable and nonstrategic spending cuts pursuant to the sequester on March 1 and on the day of the president’s State of the Union address, let me offer a few thoughts as a new senator learning how Capitol Hill works. I don’t yet know congressional procedure, but as a former mayor and governor, I do know something about budgets. And as a new member of the Senate Budget Committee, I’m working to get us back on track.
The past two years saw the following on Capitol Hill: the first-ever downgrade in America’s credit, the House’s repeated threat to repudiate American debt, the lack of any regular Senate budget and the creation of a sequester mechanism designed to self-inflict injury on the budget and economy as a means of forcing Congress to find a budget compromise — a mechanism then triggered when the supercommittee was unable to come to an agreement on a meaningful budget deal. With a new sequester deadline looming on March 1, too many members of Congress now signal a willingness to accept those self-inflicted wounds rather than find compromise to fix our budget.
And, to be fair, the blame isn’t all on Congress’ shoulders. There are good indications the White House’s fiscal year 2014 budget will be introduced in late March. That will be the fourth time in five years that the Obama administration has missed the requirement to submit a budget to Congress by the first Monday in February. And we can broaden the blame to interest groups, businesses, lobbyists and everyday citizens who preach austerity while fighting to protect every single expenditure and tax break that provides them a direct benefit.
So guess what? No one has clean hands, there’s blame to go around and finger-pointing won’t get us anywhere. But, instead of throwing up our hands and letting sequester happen — with massive layoffs and furloughs of governmental and private sector employees, indiscriminate cuts to important safety net programs and compromise of our national defense — let’s do things differently and give our economy a boost. The good news is that we have an immediate opportunity to do so.
Both houses recently agreed to return to a normal budget process for the first time since 2009. The president presents a budget, each house’s budget committee holds hearings and votes a budget to the floor. There’s floor debate and each house produces a budget by April (if not, we’ve just agreed that members don’t get paychecks until their respective houses pass a budget!). And then, conferees sit in a room, talk, listen and compromise and find a budget deal that gets voted on in both houses. This deal then sets the framework for deficit reduction, including changes in entitlements, revenues and appropriations levels that will help get our nation back on a sustainable fiscal path.
Some think the return to normal order is unlikely to succeed — there’s already a drumbeat of “there is little chance of agreement between House and Senate budget conferees.” But the process has worked before on Capitol Hill, it’s still the law, and the same process is used by governors and state legislators in every state in the country every year. Sure, the process can be messy. During my first year as governor of Virginia, my two Republican houses locked horns in a budget conference for months until the end of a fiscal year and potential shutdown led us to broker a deal. But we got a deal.
Even if you can’t get a deal in conference, at least the American public gets to see the budgetary philosophies of the president and each house. That has its own value — helping people decide which budgetary choices make the most sense.
So now back to sequester. Why would we impose one-off spending cuts on March 1, designed from the start as ugly and nonstrategic, when we’re in the midst of returning to a normal budget process? We should let the budget drive decisions about spending and revenue, including how to reduce our deficit. Congress and federal agencies should spend their energy right now working on the budget rather than on contorting their operations to meet a ridiculous sequester requirement. We can find a doable package of short-term deficit reduction while we get the FY2014 budget done. It’s this approach that will give us our best chance of getting our fiscal house in order and growing the economy for the long term.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D) represents Virginia in the United States Senate.