Despite some reluctance from members of his own party to even attempt to proceed with the budget process this year, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi released a federal budget proposal last week that includes a number of “achievable” budget cuts that he said could reduce the federal deficit by roughly $538 billion over the next five years with no hits to Medicare or Social Security.
However, the cuts that remain include a number of controversial reductions to domestic health and human service programs that were put forth in a proposal by President Donald Trump in his budget several weeks ago.
Enzi’s proposal is just the second step in the federal budget process, and does not directly dictate where money goes or to where spending levels are set. According to a spokesperson, the budget committee gets to set spending parameters, not spending details.
“Strengthening America’s future for our children and grandchildren begins by putting our nation on a more sustainable fiscal path and reducing our nation’s deficit spending, which is approaching $1 trillion per year,” Enzi said in a statement. “This budget is a responsible first step toward achieving that goal by reducing overspending and setting real, achievable deficit reduction targets. It supports reasonable reforms to mandatory spending programs and works to improve efficiency and accountability for how taxpayer dollars are spent, ensuring that government programs deliver results.”
Currently, the question of whether a budget will even get passed is up in the air. Democrats in the House of Representatives are currently struggling to produce a budget proposal among their inexperienced and ideologically divided membership, leaving Senate Republicans with the feeling the process is a waste of time, as Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, reportedly described it in a closed door meeting reported on by The Hill newspaper.
Cut revenues and cut spending?
Enzi’s budget presents a stark contrast to Trump’s proposal, particularly in regards to the president’s revenue projections under the 2017 tax cuts, which many regarded as overly optimistic.
A number of the Enzi spending reductions are somewhat glaring under the projected conditions of the tax cuts, which Enzi voted for two years ago. Through 2025, the tax cuts will increase the national deficit well beyond the half-trillion dollars in savings anticipated under Enzi’s plan through 2025, according to the Tax Policy Center. Meanwhile, long-term projections show the tax cuts would only have modest impacts on growth during that time, something acknowledged by Enzi in his budget.
However, Enzi believes there is fat to be cut from the budget at a time when states’ reliance on federal funding are at higher levels than they’ve been in 50 years.
“Senator Enzi believes we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” Rachel Vliem, a spokeswoman in Enzi’s office, wrote in an email. “He wants us to prioritize how we spend taxpayer dollars, which is where his work on a responsible budget comes into play. He is also conducting rigorous oversight over federal spending, which is one of his primary jobs as chairman of the budget committee. He is committed to improving the transparency and efficiency of the federal government and ensuring that hardworking taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck.”
Enzi’s budget only sets benchmarks and rules for federal spending, making it uncertain where the cuts would occur. The largest shares of spending reductions proposed by Enzi would come in reductions to “autopilot spending,” or automated increases to mandatory spending that are not part of the federal appropriations process, like Medicare and Social Security.
Over the past 20 years, “autopilot spending” – 90 percent of which is attributable to Social Security, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of the Treasury, according to the Congressional Budget Office – has more than doubled due to demographics changes, particularly an aging population.
Today, “autopilot spending” makes up 70 percent of federal spending – a number that is only anticipated to grow over the coming decade.
“By 2029, nearly 80 cents of every dollar the government spends will be on mandatory programs and interest on the debt,” Vliem wrote. “Senator Enzi’s goal is slow this spending with reasonable reforms to mandatory spending programs.”
Above all, Enzi’s budget attempts to encourage what Vliem described as “honest budgeting” – or making budgeting and spending as transparent and realistic as possible by eliminating “accounting gimmicks” that occasionally rear their heads in the budget process. One example includes the elimination of a changes in mandatory programs, or “CHIMPs,” tool used during the process that Vliem said doesn’t actually cut any spending.
One example is the Federal Crime Victims Fund – a 1984 fund administered by the Justice Department that has long been a target of conservatives in Congress. While the fund’s aims might be noble – to collect fines and penalties from convicted federal offenders to compensate crime victims and the local agencies that assist these victims – lawmakers have gotten into the practice of placing a cap on the annual awards the fund actually provides, using the difference to offset increases in spending elsewhere. That practice is growing increasingly problematic as the program’s funds are beginning to dry up due to a lack of revenues and a number of large upcoming settlements.
Building a better mousetrap
Enzi has made numerous efforts to improve the budgeting process in his position as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. In 2016, Enzi proposed 10 reforms to the budget process in a speech on the Senate floor and, in December, he urged his colleagues in the Senate to consider additional reforms to isolate the process from the types of “partisan impasses” that have stalled government operations in recent months.
One of the most intriguing ideas proposed by Enzi actually originates in Wyoming: a proposal to shift the federal budget to a biennial process, much like the way things are done here, while halving the number of bills considered by Congress each year, which he believes “could give Congress more time to process spending bills and conduct oversight, in addition to minimizing the risk of costly government shutdowns and partisan brinkmanship,” Vliem wrote.