In 1991, in the middle of the banking scandal in the U.S. House of
Representatives, a little-known Republican freshman rose to speak in the
House of Representatives with a paper bag over his head. This masked
man told his colleagues that he was going to have to wear that bag when
he went home to his constituents in Iowa because he was too ashamed to
show his face. Then he challenged the leaders of both political parties
to release the names of the members, who had been cashing all those
rubber checks, in order to clean up the mess. Jim Nussle's no-nonsense
approach was just the wake-up call needed in 1991. Nine years later,
Nussle is addressing another equally embarrassing problems to his
colleagues, who now have to balance their check books, but can't seem to
do the same with the federal budget which we have entrusted to their
It is no secret that the budget for the year 2000 is headed for a
train wreck, despite leadership's assurances to the contrary. These
budget train wrecks have become all too common. However, this one
should be more dramatic than others that have occurred in recent years
because this is the first year under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997
that spending cuts are required. House members who have fought for
fiscal accountability believe the budget process itself is stacked
against them and badly in need of reform.
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Nussle wrote the Comprehensive Budget Process Reform Act (H.R. 853)
with Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md. It is the result of hearings they
conducted on the federal budget process as leaders of a task force put
together by House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich. The
Nussle-Cardin bill, which is designed to help prevent these annual
budget train wrecks that invariably break the bank, is scheduled for
floor action on Tuesday, June 29.
Currently, somewhere near the beginning of the year, the president
presents his budget, which is laughed at, sneered at and ultimately
ignored. Then Congress passes a budget outline and goes to work filling
in that outline with 13 giant appropriations bills. The Comprehensive
Budget Process Reform Act encourages Congress and the president to agree
on a joint budget resolution at the beginning of the budget process.
The resolution would have the force of law because it would be passed by
both houses of Congress and signed by the president. Then Congress
legally would be bound to stay within those spending limits. Such a
resolution would force confrontation to the earliest stages of the
budget process, leaving plenty of time for legislating detail.
There would be ample incentive for the president to get together with
Congress because, if he refuses, Congress could pass a concurrent budget
resolution and we would revert back to the old inefficient process.
The Comprehensive Budget Process Reform Act offers another much
needed improvement. It requires Congress and the president to agree on
maximum spending levels for seven major budget categories, or
aggregates, rather than 20 different budget functions. These aggregates
would be defense, non-defense, mandatory spending, discretionary
spending, revenue, debt and a reserve fund for emergencies.
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Under the Nussle-Cardin proposal, emergencies would be a part of the
budget, not a way to get out from under the budget as they are now.
H.R. 853 should eliminate the need for year end omnibus budget deals,
which turn into free-for-alls when Congress is trying to wrap up the
legislative session and get out of town. Best of all, there would be no
more government shutdowns, or threats of government shutdowns. The
Nussle-Cardin bill calls for automatic continuing resolutions, which
fund the remaining agencies and programs at the previous year's spending
levels, if Congress and the president fail to do their jobs and agree on
a final federal budget by the start of the next fiscal year.
As reasonable as the Comprehensive Budget Process Reform Act is, it
is facing heavy opposition and likely will not be passed without a lot
of last minute calls and faxes. That's because the big spenders know
they can hide behind the current unworkable process. They will tell you
that they are for reform but are backing some other plan. Don't buy
it! If your member of the House of Representatives refuses to get
behind this bill, tell your congressman he is going to have to wear a
paper bag over his head when he comes home, like the one Nussle used
back in 1991. Offer to send him one, and then do it.