On the Budget Pact, the Center Must Hold

CONGRESS is trying to break last year's Budget Enforcement Act before realizing the savings it promised.Recent financial projections show that both the White House and Congress must do much more to control spending than the budget agreement requires. But Congress is doing even less. Regrettably, as weak as the agreement may be, Congress seems unwilling to keep faith with it. A major part of the problem is the control the ideological extremes in our society have gained over the legislative process. Those in the center have lost control to the extremes on both sides. The "far right" and the "far left" within Congress are poles apart, particularly when it comes to budget priorities. Those on the right, mostly Republicans, refuse to cut spending on defense programs or increase taxes. Those on the left, mostly Democrats, refuse to cut non-defense spending or control the growth of entitlement programs - now 50 percent of the federal budget. But for all their differences, the extremes within Congress agree on one thing. They would rather accept large deficits than have a tax increase or cut government spending. Those on the far right and the far left continually accept and vote for budgets with large deficits rather than give in on their respective positions. Last year's budget agreement, which was negotiated between the president and Congress, was the first real effort by those in the center of the political spectrum to regain control of our budgets in more than a decade. The agreement set out spending limits (caps) for defense, foreign assistance, and social domestic programs. And it also mandated that any new or expanded entitlement program must be financed through spending cuts or a tax increase. This pay-as-you-go provision was a primary part of the agreement. But the center has quickly lost control again. And Congress has gone back to business as usual. It is simply not making the tough choices it needs to make to bring the deficits down. One of the prime examples of the failure of Congress and the White House to control the fiscal agenda - and there are many more examples - can be found in the 1991-92 defense authorization bill. With the monumental changes taking place throughout our world, we have the ability to further reduce defense spending and utilize the savings to reduce the deficit. But instead, Congress and the White House are treating the spending limit for defense, which was set in last year's budget agreement, as a floor, not a ceiling. Vast global changes dictate a new reality that our defense budget does not reflect. In spite of this new reality, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike, are spending up to the cap. Another example is the debate over the original legislation to extend unemployment compensation benefits. Congress initially voted to extend these benefits without providing the revenue to pay for them or making spending cuts in other entitlement areas to offset the cost of this worthy program. It's the same old story - Congress spending money on a worthy program without finding the funds to pay for it. The fact is, that's how we came to have these overwhelming deficits in the first place. Fortunately, Congress ultimately came to an agreement with the White House that will provide extended unemployment compensation benefits without increasing our deficit. After four months and two vetoed bills, we finally funded the unemployment compensation bill. If we had not amassed such large deficits in the past, we would have money today to pay for extending unemployment compensation benefits and a lot of other urgent domestic needs without having to raise new revenue. We would be able to help our cities develop a stronger economic base, clean up our environment, and better educate our children. But we simply will not have the money necessary to address those urgent needs until we get the deficits under control. At some point, Congress has to say, "Enough is enough." We simply have got to stop this madness and get our financial house in order. And those of us in the center of the political spectrum from both political parties must regain control of our federal budget and the government of this great country. Until this happens, it will continue to be business as usual.

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