Congress is known by its critics for its uncanny ability to spend money and waste time. However, if there is a third vice of Congress, it is the aptitude to overreach its constitutional given role and circumvent its responsibilities. This is especially true when it comes to executing our federal budget.
The budgeting session, also known as the federal government's spending spree, has created state and local "budget codependents." In 2011, 42 states received more than one-third of their general funds from the federal government. At the end of the spectrums, Mississippi received nearly half (49.01 percent) of its general revenue from the federal government. Alaska, the state receiving the lowest percentage of funding from the federal government, still relied on federal funds for 24.01 percent of funding for state programs. In 2008, Alaska received just 13.53 percent.
With the new Congress in session, it is time for a clean slate and this can be accomplished by congressional members pledging to abide by, the Constitution and following some simple rule, including:
1. All legislation must state the specific constitutional enumerated power under Article 1, Section 8 under which Congress is acting.
2. The body of all legislation must be in conformance with the title of the bill (i.e., the body of the bill must match the title of the bill). This is a requirement in most states and would stop the end of session maneuvers in which items unrelated to the title of the bill are added as amendments.
3. Each bill must be limited to a single subject.
4. One of Congress' most important powers is the power of the purse. Congress has overlooked this power in recent years. "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time" -- Article 1, Section 9. Congress must insist upon and enforce this constitutional power.
5. The House should commit to passing the budgets for agencies on time and to refuse to pass any more budget continuing resolutions. The House should instruct the Senate to either pass the House budgets or send an alternative back to the House for its consideration.
6. Congress should stop using "baseline budgeting." Baseline budgeting is used to develop future budgets and uses current spending as the "baseline" for establishing future budgets. It assumes future budgets will equal the current budget plus an increase for inflation and population growth. Instead Congress should show the current year budget vs. actual spending and the proposed new budget.
7. The House should refuse to consider any earmarks that have not been passed in committee, meaning no earmarks added to the bill after it is passed out of committee.
8. The House should zero fund any program identified by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) as "unauthorized appropriations and expiring authorizations." House Rule 21 is supposed to stop this from occurring. As of Jan. 15, 2012, the CBO identified $261 billion for fiscal year 2012 for programs and activities whose authorizations of appropriations have expired and another $708 billion of appropriations whose authorizations expire before Sept. 30, 2012.
9. Have the CBO create a transparent budget website. Most citizens wonder, "Where and how does government spend our tax dollars?" They want to know what results are actually achieved with their money, yet have a difficult time finding out exactly how the federal government is spending their tax dollars and what is actually achieved with those investments. This website should also include all the current waste and savings reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
10. Adopt a 72-hour budget timeout before a budget is voted on, allowing adequate time for lawmaker to read the entire finalized budget and for public input.
11. No legislation, including budget amendments (other than technical amendments), should be considered unless it has been posted on-line for at least 24 hours prior to the vote. The public and all members should have access to budget amendments. Too often, government has approved wasteful spending, as lobbyists have exploited the lack of visibility of what amendments actually do and the cost of them.
12. All other legislation that contains an appropriation should have a published fiscal note before a vote is taken on the legislation. Fiscal notes provide invaluable information for the public and legislators in detailing the actual cost of proposed legislation.
Congress has a responsibility to represent the people that elected them to their office as well as honor the rules of the Constitution. Following the above steps will help ensure that federal lawmakers do their work in accordance with the Constitution. Additionally, it would provide citizens with the information necessary to hold their representatives accountable.
If change doesn't occur rapidly, then the federal government supply of money will dry up and states will have to deal with a big cut in one of their largest sources of funds. While that certainly will not be easy under any circumstances, better legislative practices at the federal level will enable lawmakers at the state level to respond as well as possible.
Bob Williams is President of State Budget Solutions, a non-partisan organization advocating for fundamental reform and REAL solutions to the state budget and pension crises. He is a former state legislator, gubernatorial candidate and official with the General Accountability Office. He is a national expert on fiscal and tax policies, election reform and disaster preparedness.