Where Does the Buck Start?
By Frank Wright, Ph.D., President & CEO
August 5, 2011
Americans have watched the process of “raising” the debt ceiling more closely, thanks to 24/7 news and the Internet. But whether Congress realizes it or not, the climate in the country has changed.
As the recession took hold in 2008 and families began tightening their own budget belts, they became more aware that Congressional spending was not only high, but completely out-of-touch with the average American who was making hard choices about housing, travel, food, health care, and education. By and large, Americans also seemed to finally realize that today’s federal spending would greatly impact them in the future. Simultaneously, there’s been a type of socio-political “coming of age” among the younger generations. Social and environmental policy activists will tell you that people younger than 35 prioritize public policy issues (and thus federal spending priorities) very differently than those over the age of 35. Those stark differences are just beginning to manifest themselves in elections, which of course, eventually impacts federal spending.
Such are the circumstances that framed the background of this year’s debate about raising the debt ceiling. And while media pundits have declared that the worst of the debt crisis may have been averted, the markets still appear to be reeling, and it is clear that the Congressional budget battles are just beginning. In fact, after recovering from the late nights and weekend work of recent weeks, most Congressional staff will probably spend the remainder of the August recess preparing for a fall fight known as “appropriations.”
Those working on and around Capitol Hill talk about “approps season,” the late spring/early summer months when House and Senate committees traditionally focus on passing 12 spending bills. After committee passage, those bills are sent to the Floor of their respective chamber, and on to the President for signature. That system, at least, allows Congressional committees to go line-by-line through the funding demands of each federal agency. Unfortunately, in recent years this important work of Congress has not been finished and Congressional leaders have increasingly relied on one of two methods to keep money flowing. At the very least, they’ve passed a “CR” (Continuing Resolution) that kept the government funded at current levels until a specific date on the calendar. Or they’ve passed one or more “Omnibus Spending Bills” that roll the remaining appropriations bills into a very few pieces of legislation, which are then passed prior to the October 1st deadline that begins the next fiscal year.
This has happened for a number of reasons. During Speaker Pelosi’s tenure, there was not a great deal of discipline among some committee chairmen and the appropriations bills weren’t getting finished. Since the last election, there has been a political stalemate between the Republican-led House and the Democrat-led Senate. That type of gridlock is good for Americans because it keeps federal spending from increasing like a snowball rolling downhill. Yet aside from party politics, Congressional passage of a CR or an Omnibus Appropriations Bill allows them to dodge responsibility for actually doing the work they’ve been sent to the Capitol to accomplish. A CR does not increase spending, but it still allows members to avoid a “government shutdown” simply because they haven’t finished important bills. Even worse, Omnibus Appropriations Bills are one of many reasons that the deficit is so high. When Congress passes a spending bill that contains all but the kitchen sink – rather than carefully looking at every proposed expenditure for every agency – it’s easy to hide funding increases that might otherwise be kept static or eliminated altogether, or hide new spending for pet projects.
Practically speaking, the debt ceiling crisis was very much a symptom of the unquenchable Congressional appetite to spend money during the last decade. Yes, Presidents from both parties have made financial demands of Congress in their annual budget, but Congress is still responsible for the outcome. Constitutionally, all spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives, and in recent weeks, the average American has been able to see this principle illustrated in Technicolor. When it’s working properly, our system of government demands that the House and Senate do the proverbial heavy lifting with regard to federal spending decisions, which explains why the focus has continually been on House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in recent days. While some of the voracious federal spending can be laid at the doorstep of President Bush and President Obama – since they both demanded sizable increases in domestic spending – Congress started and passed those bills and, until this year, always blinked first in any game of “Chicken” played with the President.
What will the remaining legislative months of 2011 hold? Keep your eye on the joint “super committee” that is tasked with deficit reduction this fall, and required to submit their plan to Congress by December 2nd. This week’s debt ceiling agreement passed the buck yet again because this new committee has been given very broad authority. They’ll be making the tough choices regarding what to keep and what to cut, a clear indication that many individual Members of Congress don’t want to face the next election with a “federal program-cutter” label attached to their lapel.
What we really need are more Members of Congress, in both the House and Senate, who are willing to go to Washington, DC, and courageously make the tough choices to make deep cuts in spending – not just cap future spending and call it “savings.” In fact, each Member of Congress should have a daily reminder in place, a sign on their desk that says: “The buck starts here.”The President's Column was prepared with the valuable research and writing assistance of Laurel A. MacLeod.
Broadband on FCC Agenda
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations
As Members of Congress head back to their home districts after a tumultuous couple of months in Washington, federal agencies press on. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has numerous items on its agenda: among them, broadband.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has been particularly focused on highlighting the Obama Administration’s goal of extending wireless high-speed Internet access across the nation. On Thursday, he was in Indiana to announce the jobs4america coalition and to highlight the role of broadband in helping businesses improve customer engagement. Earlier in the week, Chairman Genachowski unveiled the results of the FCC’s “Measuring Broadband America” report that tracked the performance of residential Internet services and offered consumers tools to practically assess their broadband needs. In his remarks, he noted:
Bottom line, broadband and these devices are changing almost every aspect of our lives. And that's why it's so important that we free up more spectrum [on] the public's airwaves to meet exploding consumer demand for wireless broadband. One of the most effective ways to do that is a market-based solution known as voluntary incentive auctions.
Next week, the FCC Chairman and the other three FCC Commissioners (former Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker’s seat has not been filled) will meet to consider another area of broadband development: wireless backhaul (essentially, getting data to and from end users and network hubs). The FCC event announcement notes that the Commission will assess “several proposals to remove regulatory barriers to the full and effective use of certain spectrum bands for wireless backhaul to promote broadband deployment… [and] other ways to make additional spectrum available for wireless backhaul.” This FCC meeting will begin at 10:30 a. m. on Tuesday, August 9, and is open to the public in person or online at http://www.fcc.gov/.
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