Friday, May 1, 2015

Bringing Accountability Back to Washington’s Budget

Congress has the duty to wisely steward taxpayer dollars. However, for many years, Congress procrastinated instead of taking a stand against growing government debt and deficits. Our nation’s finances were mismanaged and ruled by out-of-control spending for far too long.

Thankfully, we have successfully shifted the conversation in Washington from how much to spend to how much to cut. These decisions are not easy, but a national debt exceeding $18 trillion makes them necessary. The House of Representatives is tasked with using the appropriations process to determine how government revenue will be spent.

The House and Senate have now come to an agreement and passed a joint budget to cut more than $5 trillion in spending and balance the books in less than 10 years without raising taxes. It is the first joint 10-year balanced budget resolution since 2001. Because we reached a budget agreement, the House was also able to begin the annual appropriations process this week.

The passage of this joint budget and the earliest start of the appropriations process since 1974 signal a welcome return to regular order in Congress. It is important for us to utilize the legislative process to make responsible funding decisions and find savings. Instead of governing by short-term fixes, we can now make long-term, sound policy decisions to tackle our national debt and help grow our economy.

Through the appropriations process, Congress can also fulfill its constitutional duty of serving as a check on the executive branch. For example, the Fiscal Year 2016 Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act passed by the House this week contains language to block the proposed expansion of Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) regulations. This Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule would expand federal jurisdiction to include anything from ditches to prairie potholes, and would place a massive regulatory burden on our nation’s farmers.

By refusing to fund the administration’s power grabs, Congress can halt their implementation. We will likely have more opportunities throughout the appropriations process to push back on executive overreach while President Obama continues his refusal to engage with the legislative branch.

Additionally, Congress can enforce needed reforms for federal agencies through appropriations legislation. The Fiscal Year 2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act passed by the House this week requires the VA to accelerate claims processing and improve the compatibility of VA and Department of Defense records. Too many veterans are still struggling with lengthy wait times for appointments and an archaic medical record system. By tying the VA’s funding to demonstrated results, we can ensure better care for our heroes.

With this year’s early start to the appropriations process, we have more time to make productive funding decisions in the best interest of our country. A total of 12 appropriations bills are required to fund the government, and I am hopeful we can address them under regular order in the coming weeks. It is time for Congress to use the legislative process the way it was intended to cut waste and bring accountability back to Washington’s budget.

About the Author:

Congressman Adrian Smith from Nebraska serves on the Committee on Ways and Means. Congressional Rural Caucus (Chair), Congressional Rural Veterans Caucus (Chair), Modern Agriculture Caucus (Chair), Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, Congressional Western Caucus and Congressional General Aviation Caucus.

Smith has been noted for his consistent voting against tax increases, massive government bailouts, and in his opposition of the affordable healthcare act (aka ObamaCare) which is creating massive uncertainty for our nation's job creators. Smith, a co-sponsor of the Balanced Budget Amendment and a supporter of a Congressional earmark moratorium, has earned a reputation as a solid conservative through his votes to protect the rights of gun owners, efforts to limit the scope of government, and his strong pro-life voting record.

"Avengers: Age of Ultron" To Likely Surpass $1 Billion Opening Weekend

Today, May 01, marks the opening of the biggest superhero movie in film history with Joss Whedon's "Avengers: Age of Ultron." The film stars Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/The Hulk), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) and the award winning actor James Spader (Stargate, Blacklist) as the voice of Ultron. In addition to these superstars are award winner Don Cheadle as War Machine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver, Elizabeth Olsen as his sibling Scarlet Witch, Anthony Mackie is The Falcon and Hayley Atwell reprising her role of Peggy Carter.

When Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, tries to restart a dormant peacekeeping robotics program it all goes haywire and Ultron, the ultimate A.I. robot killing machine with delusions of godhood is born bringing death, destruction and mayhem to Earth causing the Avengers to reunite but not necessarily in perfect unison.

From all early indications since the film opened after midnight on May 01, this will become not only the highest grossing Marvel feature film, but will likely become the film with the largest grossing monetary figure in cinematic history. Wall Street is already projecting that "Avengers: Age of Ultron" will likely surpass or come very close to the $1 billion (USD) mark by box office close on Sunday night May 03. If this occurs it will not only be unprecedented but will also place Joss Whedon in superstar director status to the point he will be the most sought after director since the early days of Steven Spielberg. Whedon will be able to name his own projects and pretty much get whatever he needs to create his next blockbuster masterpiece.

Could "Serenity II" be on the horizon?

Baltimore

This past Wednesday Camden Yards in Baltimore was nearly silent. As the baseball game between the Orioles and the White Sox played out amid empty stands, eerie sounds and images replaced the usual cheers. For the first time in the history of Major League Baseball, two teams competed in an official game without the backdrop of any fans.

Last Saturday in the same stadium, thousands of people found themselves trapped by violent riots in the streets outside. Mobs hurled insults and objects, damaging property and setting police vehicles ablaze. The death of a man in police custody triggered a rampage that has blown open Baltimore’s social powder keg.

A group of businessmen from Nebraska visited me this week in Washington. One asked the question: “Is Washington responsible for Baltimore?” Frankly, it would have been easier to avoid this topic altogether, but I think it needs to be addressed. Freddie Gray of Baltimore was arrested. It is unclear why he was detained. But what is clear is that he is now dead. He suffered a severe spinal injury that went untreated as he was detained. The unfolding of the sad reality has sparked the chaos that Baltimore is now experiencing.

Two principles are at work here: first, no one should ever experience brutality from our nation’s police, and the justice system must work in the right way. Second, as citizens we must respect the rule of law and the officers who properly enforce it. The vast majority of police officers risk their lives every day to keep us safe. They serve and protect.

Many of Baltimore’s inner city neighborhoods are experiencing deep resentment, cynicism, and hopelessness, all contributing to anger and therefore irrational behavior. Persons who live in distressed urban areas face many other challenges: failing schools, entrenched poverty, drugs, crime, and broken families. But vandals are not victims. A Facebook post circulated widely among high school students helped spark the riots, calling for a “purge” of the city and a destructive gathering at a shopping mall. Members of the Baltimore community had every right to raise a proper outcry. But what good does looting do?

Although Washington is not directly responsible for solving Baltimore’s unrest, leaders in our nation’s government must articulate the real source of America’s strength. We must convey first principles: that society draws stability and vibrancy from the institutions of family life, faith life, and community life. These are the environments where interdependency of mutual commitment reinforces responsibility, trust, and that which is good. Public policy can help alleviate the harshness of poverty and crime, but ultimately smart choices must be made.

The people of Baltimore are now responsible for coming together to surmount the vacuum of discord and to rebuild a social infrastructure that is in disrepair. The human heart longs for order. Without order, there is no freedom. It is a true poverty that young people are worsening their situation by committing irrational acts of crime.

The wellbeing of America depends on a society that gives rise, particularly in children, to proper outlook and good formation. When social institutions are lost, you cannot pass enough laws and spend money fast enough to fill the vacuum. The result is a baseball game played in silence—and a city in flames.

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.