It looks like Congress won't pass a budget this year. "So what?" you say, and rightfully so. The federal government will go on without interruption.
As a former member of the House Budget and Appropriations Committees, I can say with some experience that congressional budgeting is playacting anyway, and all the political hand-wringing is just stagecraft. The ersatz congressional budget lacks the two defining characteristics of real budgeting: binding budget constraints and enforceable spending priorities.
What euphemistically is called the congressional "budget" doesn't actually authorize the expenditure of monies; it simply sets the procedural framework in which Congress does authorize expenditures. If the congressional budget "doesn't pass," that means Congress simply uses other procedures to authorize expenditures, hopefully fewer of them.
The tangle over this year's congressional budget comes about because four Republican senators refuse to allow a congressional budget to pass without also reinstating the "paygo" rules, which expired last September. The paygo rules were a remnant of the infamous budget summit in 1990 where President George H. W. Bush broke his "no-new-taxes" promise and bowed to Democratic demands for tax increases, a promise that they quickly reneged on. President Reagan often lamented that he was promised $3 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increase in the 1982 budget deal, but, "Congress never cut spending by even a penny." In 1990, as a result of the budget deal, taxes increased and so did the deficits.
Paygo was portrayed as a procedural enforcer of fiscal discipline. It required a supermajority vote of Congress to approve legislation enacting new spending increases unless offsetting tax increases were adopted to "pay for" the new spending. Likewise, paygo required a supermajority vote to cut taxes unless Congress also enacted offsetting spending reductions.
The problem with the old paygo rules was that they didn't apply to the source of most spending increases, namely entitlement spending. Neither did the paygo rules require spending reductions to offset the automatic tax increases that occur every year due to our progressive tax system.
Therefore, under paygo the default setting on government growth was "bigger." With automatic increases in federal entitlement spending and higher tax revenues built right into the system, the paygo rules were biased in favor of ever larger government.
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