Diogenes the Cynic was said to have prowled the streets of Athens searching for an honest man, but the dens and warrens of the U.S. Congress may be even more bereft. The Honest Budget Act, introduced by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on Oct. 5, is intended to scour some of the accumulated smoke and mirrors out of the budget process. It takes dead aim at the accounting tricks that both houses of Congress and both parties have used over the last few decades to swell the budget while claiming significant "savings."
Some of those tricks are
- "Emergency" spending that goes to cover non-emergencies, such as shortfalls in other programs. Any money appropriated for floods and hurricanes and similar unforeseen events is exempt from the normal restraints that are supposed to impose some discipline on the budget. The trouble comes when "emergency" is interpreted creatively.
- "ChiMPs," or Changes in Mandatory Spending Programs. ChiMPs are often included in appropriations bills to show a "savings" that has nothing whatsoever to do with actual money spent or saved. For example, if a planned appropriation of $1 billion is delayed or underspent for 10 years, it can be scored as a "savings" of as much as $10 billion. And what is imaginatively saved in one column can be actually spent in another.
- Fake "rescissions." When Congress budgets more money for a project than is needed-a not uncommon occurrence-the excess is "rescinded" on paper, but then shuffled to programs. Thus the money is spent but still scored on the budget as "saved."
- Advance appropriations. Money is often budgeted for several years in advance for new projects or programs. Some federal beneficiaries like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting typically receive advance funding for developing and producing new shows. The practice gets out of hand when future appropriations are scored according to the year that funding first becomes available. This allows Congress to defer increases to future years in order to allow for more spending in the current year. In 2000 the Senate passed a rule restricting advance appropriations, but the rule expired and has not been renewed.
The Honest Budget Act would do away with these budgeting gimmicks (or, in the case of advance appropriations, simply reinstate the rule). It would also make the federal employee pay freeze, instated by President Obama in 2010, a real pay freeze. As it is, the only increases the "freeze" eliminates are from one pay grade to the next. More than 70 percent of federal workers still receive "within-grade" pay increases, amounting to 2 to 3 percent of total salary every year (adding up to about $1 billion).
And finally, the bill makes it more likely that the Senate will actually pass a budget resolution before appropriating money. It's a scandal that the Senate has not approved a reasonable budget resolution since 2009. All funding has been done through omnibus appropriations: catch-all bills that sweep through the voting process like flypaper, picking up any stray earmark or pet project a senator wishes to fund. Senators can and have objected to these omnibus bills, but according to current rules the objection can be overruled by a simple majority vote. The Honest Budget Act would require 60 votes to overturn an objection, thus putting a little more pressure on the Senate to start acting like the deliberative body it is supposed to be.
The Honest Budget Act has little chance of passing in a Democratic Senate, but it serves to expose some of the magical thinking that goes into budgeting these days. That's a start. One thing is for sure: When it becomes impossible to even talk about government budgeting without the generous use of scare quotes, some adjustments must be made.