By Rep. Martha Roby
Consider this: a father gives his son $50 to buy boots for a summer job. The son, surprised to find a half-off sale at the store, purchases the boots for $25 and uses the remaining $25 to buy a video game. Later, his father is not happy. The son protests, “I don’t see why you’re upset. The video game didn’t cost you anything because I saved you $25 at the shoe store.”
Obviously, money that was never going to be spent cannot later be claimed as “savings.” That’s common sense. At home, perhaps we chalk up the son’s poor judgment to the joys of parenthood. But when our representatives in Washington play the same game, we ought to call it what it is: a dishonest gimmick designed to create the illusion of savings and hide new spending.
The American people sent my historic freshman class to Washington to end business as usual, restore transparency and accountability, and stop spending money we don’t have. We’re making progress. Despite stiff resistance from the Senate and the White House, we’ve changed the conversation in Washington from “How much can we spend?” to “How much can we cut?” That is no small feat.
However, after a year in the trenches, many of my colleagues and I are dismayed at the dysfunction in the process. We’ve seen firsthand the insider tricks and schemes used to distort the budget, create faux-savings, and hide new spending. We’ve learned that these loopholes are deeply engrained in the rules of Congress, and that both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of exploiting them.
Americans deserve a government that shoots straight. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.” How can the people hold their representatives accountable when Congress distorts the basic facts? In the private sector, such accounting methods would amount to a felony.
I am convinced that we can do better. That’s why I’m introducing the Honest Budget Act, legislation designed to root out the budget gimmicks most commonly used by politicians to hide the truth, confuse the public, and run up the national debt.
In the Senate, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions already introduced legislation to strengthen the Senate’s rules against budget trickery. Numerous conservative groups have endorsed Sessions’ bill, including the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform, and Citizens Against Government Waste.
The Honest Budget Act would apply Sessions’ commonsense approach to the House of Representatives, providing rank-and-file members new tools to remove the smoke and mirrors.
Our legislation addresses nine specific budget gimmicks that, since 2005, have cost taxpayers more than $350 billion and have consistently added to the burgeoning national debt. Here’s how one works:
When Congress rescinds—or takes back—previously approved spending authority from a federal agency, it can legitimately use that recession to offset increased spending in other areas. However, Congress too often intentionally rescinds spending authority that would not actually have resulted in spending down the road. (In other words, the Treasury was never going to spend the money—whether Congress rescinded it or not.) Congress then counts the phony rescissions as “savings” that can be used to “pay for” something else.
So, when the final 2011 appropriations bill rescinded funds left over from the 2010 decennial Census, it looked good on paper—until you considered that the Census was already over and there was no chance those funds were actually going to be spent. Regardless, the “census rescission” counted as $1.8 billion in savings that Congress used to “offset” new, real world spending.
Under the Honest Budget Act, the Budget Committees would be prohibited from counting rescissions of budget authority that do not produce actual cash savings. Put simply, the son buying boots couldn’t count the $25 discount as savings to spend on another frivolous purchase.
Small changes can make a big difference. The editorial board of the National Review recently noted that “cracking down on these deceptive accounting practices would go a long way toward restoring fiscal sanity to the federal budget process” and “would help to tamp down some of these [budget] shenanigans.”
That’s true, but the issue is larger than accounting rules. The legislation addresses the wider culture of irresponsibility and dishonesty that has shaken America’s confidence in government.
A budget is a plan for the nation’s future and an annual financial report to the stockholders of the company—in this case, the American people. We deserve the truth. Given what I have witnessed over the last year, the only way to guarantee the truth is to specifically root out and end the gimmicks that so often obscure it.
In many respects, the Honest Budget Act embodies the spirit of transparency and accountability that unites my freshman class, and I am working to line up a majority of my freshman colleagues to join me on the legislation. The bill is a rallying point for those who truly want to put an end to the tricks, gimmicks, and empty promises, and for all who believe that the American people deserve a government that they can trust.
Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District in the House of Representatives. She serves on the House Committee on Armed Services, House Committee on Agriculture, and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Roby’s legislation, the Honest Budget Act of 2012, is a companion bill to legislation introduced by Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions.