The Constitution assigns the power of the purse to Congress. It’s an awesome responsibility.
Lawmakers’ spending decisions affect all citizens directly (in terms of how much they pay in taxes and what they receive in government services) and indirectly (in terms of how the decisions affect the overall economy). Because of this, accountability and transparency in budgeting are essential.
Yet far too often, Congress eschews transparency to escape accountability for its budgeting decisions. Instead, it resorts to budget gimmicks and accounting tricks to mask the true costs of legislation. This sleight of hand increases deficit spending by billions of dollars annually.
One of the more popular budget gimmicks is called “Changes in Mandatory Programs,” better known as CHIMPs. CHIMPs are used to rescind funds previously approved for a specific use. In some cases, CHIMPs provide legitimate savings. Far too often, however, they are used simply to shift funding from the current year to a later year, producing no real savings.
The FY 2017 omnibus appropriations bill claimed to make over $20 billion in CHIMP “savings.” Yet, they will yield only $1.3 billion in real spending cuts over a 10-year period.
Misleading CHIMPs undermine fiscal accountability and transparency. Congress should stop using this gimmick, making CHIMPs only when they will produce measurable savings in the cost of government programs.
Another dishonest tactic Congress uses to offset spending increases is to extend customs-user fees. These were intended to be short-term fees, collected by the U.S. Customs Service, and used solely to help pay for providing customs services. Some other federal agencies also collect user fees to provide services and help defray program costs. In recent years though, Congress has repeatedly extended the fees and used them pay for programs that have nothing to do with customs services or the people who use them.
Last year, Congress extended the collection of customs user fees for 31/2 months, in order to raise $1.3 billion to bail out underfunded pension plans for coal miners.
The same offset was also used as part of the 2013 Ryan-Murray budget deal, which raised the spending caps for 2014 and 2015 that had been established in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The two-year extension of customs user fees generated nearly $7 billion, which was used for completely unrelated discretionary spending.
These are just two of the numerous budget gimmicks that Congress uses on a regular basis to obscure the true costs of governing. And unless lawmakers change their ways, the list of gimmicks will doubtless grow longer as Congress looks for new ways to feed its spending habit, evade spending caps and other budget rules meant to enforce fiscal restraint.
Just last year, for example, Congress used the 21st Century Cures Act to create several new discretionary spending accounts funded through transfers of over $6 billion from the U.S. Treasury. In creating those accounts, Congress explicitly excluded them from the constraints of budget caps in law.
As Congress tries to reach another spending deal in the coming months, lawmakers should shun these shenanigans. They should strive to craft a deficit-neutral deal, in which spending increases are matched with spending reductions. But those savings must be real, having an actual deficit-reducing impact on the budget.
To continue leaning on budget gimmicks is fiscally reckless. Indeed, any spending deal should be accompanied by reforms to the budget process that will rein in the use of gimmicks.
One potential solution would be to extend the spending caps established in current law. They are due to sunset in 2021. Extending those caps would help to control the nominal growth of discretionary spending, as well as produce measurable budget savings.
With deficit and debt levels already projected to explode in the coming decade, taxpayers cannot afford to add billions more through deceptive budget gimmicks and accounting tricks.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times