State finances > federal finances

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson:

The debt ceiling is supposed to be a fiscal control that forces Congress to balance the budget or at least reduce annual deficits. That our federal government’s gross debt stands at $22.6 trillion, and that this year’s annual deficit is close to $1 trillion, proves it hasn’t worked. Elected officials have become skilled at circumventing the debt ceiling and mortgaging our children’s future with impunity.

That’s why the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which I chair, passed a bill in June to force some fiscal discipline on Congress and end the cost and chaos of government shutdowns. There have been similar bills. Sens. Rob Portman and Mark Warner each introduced legislation earlier this year to fund the government automatically and avoid shutdowns. At least eight bills in the House seek to do the same. Some of these proposals decrease spending, while others would allow for more. None have passed because each party is suspicious that the other will exploit mandated spending discipline.

Sens. James Lankford and Maggie Hassan, a Republican from Oklahoma and a Democrat from New Hampshire, introduced a compromise measure that operates similarly to Wisconsin’s law. If Congress can’t pass an appropriations bill, their legislation would automatically appropriate funding for the affected parts of government at current levels. As an incentive, it prohibits members of Congress, their staffs and certain members of the administration from spending federal or campaign funds for travel until all the required appropriations bills pass. It also prevents both chambers of Congress from considering legislation other than appropriations bills except in rare cases of national emergency. Our committee added an amendment that would hold members’ pay in escrow until all regular appropriations bills pass.

We might be surprised at how not getting paid, or having to pay for their own travel, would get members’ attention. Despite the usual dysfunction and slow pace of the Senate, it’s amazing how efficiently the body can function when a weekend or a recess is approaching and members are worried they might miss it.

I moved the Lankford-Hassan bill through my committee because I thought it had the best chance of getting bipartisan support. I was right. The bill, as amended, passed the committee 12-2. The two no votes were Republican members who had competing bills.Skeptics who fear the bill could become the long-term funding mechanism for the federal government should look at Wisconsin’s example. The longest period the provision has been in effect in Madison is four months—and that was in 1971. It makes more sense to hold spending at previous levels for a short period than to incur the cost and chaos of recurring shutdowns.

Anyone concerned that Congress would leave spending unchanged for the long term doesn’t understand the pervasive bipartisan support for increased spending. Before this August’s congressional recess, Congress worked out a budget deal that again suspended the debt ceiling (though July 2021) and raised spending by $320 billion over existing law in the next two fiscal years. The bill passed the Senate 67-28 and the House 284-149. A majority of nearly two-thirds in each chamber had no trouble simply suspending the debt ceiling and locking in annual deficits of about $1 trillion each year.

Members voting for the August budget deal and debt suspension felt the agreement would remove the threat of a government shutdown heading into the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. Yet last week the Senate could not muster the votes to advance a bill appropriating defense funds, and Senate leaders are now talking about passing a 35th continuing resolution to get us to November. The dysfunction continues.
I’m convinced, based on the discussion and votes in my committee, that the Prevent Government Shutdown Act of 2019 can pass with broad bipartisan support. Congress should vote on it before the end of the fiscal year. It’s the least we can do to reduce Washington’s pervasive dysfunction.

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