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Washington Week

August 28, 2011 - 6:00pm

The August recess was a habit from back-in-the-day because at one time our U.S. Capitol didn't have the benefit of air conditioning. The Senate and House chambers are already full of hot air without Mother Nature adding to the problem.

In 1970, Congress basically made it a permanent recess when it was included in the Legislative Reorganization Act. So while most congressional D.C.-ers are off enjoying their "August recess," I thought it might be helpful to construct a brief history of past federal budget agreements. This history talks about all the major federal budget agreements from the mid-1980s to the present. This almost 30-year history unfortunately shows that these agreements of the past are almost always changed, ignored or completely rewritten before any pain is suffered as a result ofspending restraints being put in place.

Back in the mid-1980s the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act was created by former Sens. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and Fritz Hollings, D-S.C. It called for sequesters or across-the-board cuts to control our federal spending. These sequesters were much like the sequester language that is contained in the current Budget Control Act. In the first five years under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings (GRH) bill, two sequesters occurred. The results were:

  • The amounts of the sequester were changed by future legislation.
  • The sequester was overridden by subsequent debt agreements.

TheGRH No. 1 was revised two years later because it was deemed unworkable and thus Congress created GRH No. 2.
After three more years of trying to live under GRH No. 2, Congress usurped the bill with the Budget Enforcement Act.

By the 1990s Congress was trying to live under the Budget Enforcement Act. The bill set limits on spending and created a "pay-go" type restraint. This meant that Congress couldn't spend more than it had and therefore had to pay for every program that it created or funded. However, Congress allowed for emergency designations to be included in the list of major programs that were exempted from the "pay-go" rules, so that the BEA eventually became worthless. However, while the BEA was in place three sequesters occurred. The results were:

  • Overturned by future legislation (sequestration).
  • Overturned by future legislation (pay-go violation).
  • Allowed to make the cuts under a small sequestration.

By the year 1998, our federal government actually had a surplus of money, thanks in part to the dot com economic boom. Spending restraints were ignored or waived by votes in the Senate and House. After all, our federal government had more money than it knew what to do with. The treasury had money coming in from new taxpayers, new businesses, and state tax revenues were all healthy and happy.

Congress began to fund wars, expense natural disasters, create mammoth new government agencies and pass huge spending bills including Medicare Part D during the 2000s. All of this spending was being charged to our national credit card.

By the end of 2006 the Democrats controlled Congress again and the out-of-control spending continued. By 2008, under the helm of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.,and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Congress stopped passing budget resolutions. Budget resolutions act as a blueprint for spending for Congress. The budget resolution sets up limits and targets for the money Congress spends on behalf of our federal government. Without a budget resolution, passing the individual appropriations bills that fund all of our agencies became very difficult. After all, if you don't know what your spending limits are, then how can you know when you have to stop spending? Obviously, you can't and don't.

The appropriations bills became bundled together into one huge omnibus appropriations bill. A total funding figure was then negotiated and agreed to by a few leaders in Congress. The Congress as a whole was given a take-it-or-leave-it proposition when it came to funding our federal government via the appropriations process. Obviously, holding hearings and listening to the merits of worthy federal programs never got their "day in court."

Rather, anything and everything was fully funded, with increases to boot! The practice of funding small local projects called "earmarks" was put on steroids during this period. Once the practice was accepted, it became very commonplace for most members of Congress to request earmarks as an example of their concern for their constituents back home.

In 2009 and 2010, with spending in its heyday, the Obama administration pushed through Congress a multitrillion-dollar Obamacare health care bill,an $889 billion (plus/minus) stimulus bill, TARP funding, auto bailouts, and much, much more. All of this added to our federal credit card.

By 2010, Congress passed "pay-as-you-go" as part of a debt-limit increase bill. This pay-as-you-go provision had so many programs that were exempted that it, too, basically had no teeth. Now in August 2011, the Congress created a 12-member supercommittee tasked to tackle Congress's debt and spending problems.

The D.C. metro area experienced its first earthquake in over half a decade last week. This writer believes for this country to get back on the right path of spending restraints, another earthquake will have to occur. Only this one needs to be a fiscal earthquake in the form of an amendment to our Constitution calling for our federal government to balance its budget.

Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, elected United States Senate secretary for the majority and minority. Currently she is a senior legislative adviser for Covington & Burling, LLC and is the founder of

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