Outside editorial: End absurd budget farce

The following editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald:

Last week, Congress passed yet another stopgap measure funding the U.S. government through April 8, but lawmakers still can’t decide on a final budget for the current fiscal year. It was the sixth such temporary extension since the budget year began. “It’s a terrible way to do business,” said Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va. Apparently, lots of frustrated Americans agree with him.

A new Pew Research Center poll reported Monday that public disdain is growing for a Congress failing at its most basic duty — allocating money and paying the bills. Half of the survey respondents believe the debate over spending and the deficit has been “generally rude and disrespectful.”

Approval ratings for the new class of lawmakers that came in with such enthusiasm and high expectations less than three months ago are already down. That’s no surprise. As one late-night comedian noted, Congress seems to have all the budgeting skills of a college sophomore.

The most insistent voices clamoring for less spending this year say they want to fix America’s debt problem. Great. But how can a Congress that can’t see beyond a three-week horizon come to grips with the very real twin problems of the deficit and the national debt that cast such a big shadow over America’s future? The answer is that it can’t, not as long as it continues this political farce of short-term budgeting.

The deficit is expected to reach a record $1.65 trillion this year. That’s a huge load of new debt by any measure. The chronic deficits require a structural overhaul of the nation’s finances. Yet the bickering is over nickel-and-dime items rather than on the budget-busters — namely, Social Security, Medicare and tax reform.

Last week was typical of the absurd nature of the debate in the House. Republicans demanded and got an “emergency” declaration so they could vote on a budget-cutting measure to end funding of National Public Radio, which gets $5 million. No doubt, they scored political points by striking at a perennial conservative target. But in terms of fixing the budget, they accomplished nothing.

The immediate problem centers on demands by the Young Turks in the House GOP to cut $61 billion from the current budget. So far, they’ve won votes to cut $10 billion, but seem prepared to shut down the government if they don’t get their way completely. That would be an irresponsible and counterproductive move.

Even some of their GOP colleagues, who understand that compromise is the name of the game, are getting seriously frustrated. “Take ‘yes’ for an answer,” pleaded Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., arguing that budget hawks had won a significant victory. They should listen to him so they can end this silly process and begin to tackle the budget for fiscal 2012.

The current approach is short-sighted in the extreme. It doesn’t save that much money, to begin with. It also slows down government operations for no good reason.

One affected agency, the Social Security Administration, has said that the processing of income tax returns and refunds will be hampered by its inability to know how much funding is in the pipeline.

Discretionary spending — which is what all this fuss is about — takes up only 12 percent of the federal budget. Entitlement programs like Social Security take up 40 percent. That’s where the real money is and that’s where tough decisions have to be made. That’s where lawmakers must focus their attention.

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