The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Keep the Caps

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Based on all of the bloviating around Washington, D.C., about how sequestration is inflexible and unworkable, one would assume that the entire federal budget process is about to explode.  In reality, the caps on federal discretionary spending are scheduled to increase every year through fiscal year (FY) 2021; just not by as much as some would like.

The invective being hurled toward sequestration on defense spending, mostly from Republicans, does not include recognition that such spending is scheduled to increase from $521 billion in FY 2015 to $523 billion in FY 2016.  Democrats are whining about non-defense spending, which will also increase, but not by as much as they want.  If lawmakers on both sides of the aisle truly want to demonstrate that they are serious about the fiscal health of the nation, Congress must (at least) maintain the spending caps established under sequestration.  The choice is really between allowing the across-the-board impact of sequestration to take hold, or cutting waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement to achieve the same goal.

The spending caps were established in the bipartisan 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which traded an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling for near-term spending cuts and long-term budget caps.  Under the BCA, the budget for discretionary spending will increase by less than 2 percent annually from FY 2016 through FY 2021 (at a time when inflation is around that level).  In 2013, the caps were raised slightly for FY 2014 and FY 2015 in a budget deal that Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) opposed

Now that lawmakers again have the ability to set the top line funding levels for the government, there is far too much talk about breaking the spending caps.  President Obama’s FY 2016 budget proposes a 7 percent increase in discretionary spending that would be split evenly between defense and non-defense discretionary accounts and paid for through tax and fee increases totaling $1.44 trillion over the next decade.  Although the House and Senate Budget Committees have not yet released their respective budget resolutions, they will certainly ignore the President’s proposals.  The question is whether they will go above the caps as well in some manner.

As both public and private sources have pointed out, mismanagement and duplication are ubiquitous throughout the federal government.  CAGW’s 2014 Prime Cuts includes 604 spending cut recommendations that would save taxpayers $641.9 billion in the first year and $2.7 trillion over five years.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) annually publishes a report highlighting duplication and overlap in federal programs.  The past three GAO reports identified 162 areas of government duplication and cost savings.  GAO’s 2014 report found that of the 380 recommended actions to Congress and the administration in past reports, 123 were addressed, 172 were partially addressed, and 75 were not addressed.  In the 2014 Wastebook, former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) identified 100 “silly, unnecessary, and low priority projects” totaling $25 billion.  Even President Obama’s FY 2016 budget includes “101 cuts, consolidations and savings proposals to save over $14 billion in 2016.”  Given the plethora of sources showing where efficiencies in federal spending could be achieved, it is difficult to sympathize with those who say that there is no way to avoid the “devastating” effects of sequestration.

Calls for increases in defense spending are both ill-advised and unrealistic.  Democrats and the White House will use any increase in defense spending to push hard for increased non-defense spending. 

Instead of abdicating one of its primary responsibilities, Congress should hold the line and prove to taxpayers that members are capable of effectively shepherding their resources.  At a time when the national debt exceeds $18.1 trillion, it is essential that the spending levels set under one of the only laws that has successfully restrained spending remain intact.

-- P.J. Austin

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