Yesterday, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) announced the introduction of the HELP Act in an attempt to stop the expansion of federal spending. Today, Inhofe explains the effort in a Wall Street Journal essay by reminding us of what we already know — that the federal government spends too much money. Inhofe proposes rolling back discretionary spending to 2008 levels, but even that may not be enough:
Earlier this year, President Obama announced a three-year freeze on discretionary spending for all nonsecurity-related agencies. On the surface, that seems like a good idea. But the president’s plan would freeze spending at fiscal year 2010 levels, which are 20% higher than spending levels just two years ago. In addition, the $787 billion stimulus package Mr. Obama signed into law last year provided a substantial spending cushion to nearly every federal agency, making the spending freeze largely irrelevant.
I’ve introduced legislation called the Honest Expenditure Limitation Program (HELP) Act. Instead of locking in the president’s 20% spending increase, my plan reduces nonsecurity discretionary spending over a five-year period. Once it reaches the 2008 spending level, my bill then freezes spending there for an additional five years.
Real fiscal restraint requires cutting budgets, not locking in an artificially high spending level and then allowing spending to explode again after three years as the president’s proposal does.
The American people deserve honesty about their government’s spending. Repeatedly, Congress has made mostly symbolic gestures toward fiscal responsibility, such as the Democrat’s current pay-go process. In theory that requires Congress to pay for any new spending, but in practice it is easily evaded.
For this reason, my spending cap comes with teeth. Typically, the Senate can sidestep spending restraints with a 60-vote majority. But to exceed my spending caps my legislation would require a super majority of 67 votes in the Senate. Furthermore, if Congress passes a spending bill that exceeds my spending caps but fails to win a super majority vote in the Senate, the Office of Management and Budget would automatically impose an across-the-board spending cut of the excess amount at the end of the year.
The effort by President Obama to claim credit for a spending freeze was ludicrous. He and his Democratic allies in Congress had pushed spending from $2.77 trillion in 2007 to over $3.8 trillion for 2010, a 37% increase in just three years of Democratic control of Congress. It’s akin to taking credit for putting out a fire that they set, and only after the building has burnt to the ground.
However, due to political realities, both freezes have something in common, which is that they don’t really tackle the biggest budget-busters: entitlements. Limiting the freeze to “discretionary spending” means that Medicare and Social Security will continue to balloon, with its unfunded liabilities growing exponentially larger. Few in Congress have the stomach for meaningful entitlement reform; Democrats instead have tried entitlement expansion, largely at the expense of the states through Medicaid, but with dire consequences for Medicare as well. In order to reform entitlements, tough decisions have to be made about restricting eligibility, raising the retirement age, and limiting benefits, none of which will be popular but all of which will be necessary.
This isn’t the only GOP effort to rein in the massive spending seen over the last three years. The Hensarling/Pence bill in the House would cap all federal spending at 20% of GDP, including entitlements, which would force Congress to get serious about the biggest deficit issue on the table. Fortunately, the two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, and both are better than the pay-go rules that Democrats celebrated and then immediately ignored. If we can’t get serious entitlement reform, at least we could get a little HELP.