Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Budget Balance

In the midst of America’s many challenges—deep political divides, halting economic progress, ongoing conflict in the Middle East—our government is gearing up for the critical but difficult work of the budgetary cycle. I share the concerns of many people who worry about spending and growing debt, not to mention the frustration at our inability to reach a consensus on budgetary sanity.

Partisan sniping and competing claims in the news complicate the impression of the process. Although budgeting rarely follows an orderly procedure, the prescribed order is fairly easy to understand. The House and Senate propose, work on, and agree to a budget number. The President also submits a budget, which does not necessarily have bearing on the Congressional version. With an overall number, the Appropriations Committee sets discretionary funding levels for federal agencies and programs ranging from the Department of Defense to National Parks, from the Peace Corps to Veterans Affairs. Other programs in Washington are called mandatory and include Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These programs, along with interest on the debt, account for more than two-thirds of the overall budget.

Repairing our national budget is one of my highest priorities in Congress. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I have frontline responsibilities for delivering smart and effective government while moving us toward fiscal stability. Under the normal process, the discretionary budget is divided into 12 separate Appropriations bills. After these bills pass the Committee, they are considered before the entire House. This ensures more transparency over the vast enterprise of government.

I serve on three subcommittees with specialized roles. State and Foreign Operations has jurisdiction over the State Department, certain treasury procedures, and aspects of military financing. Military Construction and Veterans Affairs oversees our military infrastructure, including our nuclear architecture, and important veterans programs. Energy and Water Development helps govern a broad spectrum of energy programs, nuclear weapons security, and vast infrastructure projects across the country.

The critical annual task of budgeting is underway. Fortunately, through aggressive work and negotiation, we have brought the discretionary budget below 2010 levels. However, the government still spends more than it receives. This year's projected spending is $3.677 billion. Our country currently has a budget deficit of about $500 billion and a debt of $18 trillion, which has grown by $7 trillion in the last 6 years, harming economic recovery and national security. Although the deficit has fallen significantly due to spending reductions, tax code changes, and some economic growth, our debt continues to have consequences. It unfairly pushes the tax burden onto the next generation; it effectively shifts the assets of America to other countries, like China, which buy the debt; and it causes economic distortions that hurt the poor and those on fixed income the most. If we were to pay the debt off all at once, every American would owe more than $56,000.

Confronting such significant numbers, Congress should have a new urgency as it reengages the slow, hard, messy process of keeping the government running. Disruptions to the normal budgeting process are counterproductive and result in year-end legislative packages called omnibus bills. While last minute omnibus packages are not the best way to govern, they often do reflect many of the changes made throughout the year by the Appropriations Committee.

To help facilitate better understanding, I have created several charts that try to communicate this vast and complex topic in a digestible manner. They are visible on my website, which you can visit at, or you can download them here. I hope they help illustrate our current spending, our current programs—and where the math doesn't add up.

About the Author:

JEFF FORTENBERRY has served as the U.S. Representative for Nebraska's 1st congressional district since 2005. He is the Chairperson for the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry. Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights and has a seat on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a member of the following Caucus groups: Civil War Battlefield Caucus - Congressional Biofuels Caucus - Congressional Farmer Cooperative Caucus - House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus - International Conservation Caucus - Sportsmen's Caucus.

Congressman Fortenberry has become the most knowledgeable representative on Capitol Hill for nuclear security issues.

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