Making the 'Case' in Congress for Fiscal Discipline

Special Guests: Ed Case, Phil Smith, Tori Gorman

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This week on Facing the Future, we spoke with Representative Ed Case of Hawaii, a leader of the House Blue Dog Coalition, about his sometimes lonely job of convincing his colleagues in both parties to pay for the programs they want, and put the debt on a sustainable path. The Concord Coalition’s national field director Phil Smith joined me for that conversation. Later in the program Concord’s policy director Tori Gorman and I focused on a new report issued by the Defense Department that shows how Congress has funded billions of dollars in projects more than the Pentagon had asked for.

Case represents Hawaii’s first congressional district which includes the city of Honolulu. Previously he represented the Pacific island state’s 2nd congressional district, and prior to that he was a state legislator. He is involved in a number of legislative initiatives to reform the budget process and come up with some fixes to Medicare and Social Security.  Case says it has been 22 years since Congress and the White House have actually passed a fiscally responsible budget, because elected leaders on both sides of the aisle have largely abandoned the concept in favor of spending, borrowing, and tax cuts.

“We’ve got a whole line of thought out there in this country that in fact that governments can have their cake and eat it too,” said Case. “Look around the world at examples of  governments who have tried that and it doesn’t work too well. There are any number of examples of that in Europe or South America, and we have a current example in Turkey. You can’t escape the music and many of my colleagues are busy trying to escape the music in one way or another.  It’s dangerous to our national security. Budgets are not these stark pieces of paper. They reflect public values, public policy, and public judgements about where to allocate resources, where to allocate burdens. Where to try to solve the problems of our country both short term, mid term and long term.”

With interest rates climbing significantly for the first time in 15 years, the cost of borrowing is increasing, Case says this is forcing Congress to actually face the music. He also takes pains to point out that while fiscal discipline is part of his DNA, that does not mean he is a ‘small-government’ guy.  He believes in expanding health coverage and programs to help people out of poverty, and as someone representing a group of islands in the Pacific wants Congress to focus on rising sea levels and slowing the pace of climate change.  But he wants those federal investments to be balanced with revenue to pay for it. It’s one of the reasons Case is sponsoring the Sustainable Budget Act in Congress.

“The Sustainable Budget Act essentially says that we will try to develop an external mechanism to take a look at the big picture because the problem here is that many of these decisions are very ad hoc, isolated to one particular issue,” said Case. “We need a ‘whole of government approach’: how does this all fit together in terms of total revenues, total expenses, total debt, and trends? And so what we really need is some external help is to take a look at the big picture and say the goal is a sustainable level of debt over time, how do you allocate revenues and expenses, here is how you get to it, here is our recommendation, and that recommendation is put to Congress, and Congress has to vote yes or no. No tinkering away at the edges. You’ve got to take the medicine.”

Case is also a House co-sponsor of the TRUST Act introduced by Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah that would take a similar approach to shoring up the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.

A new Department of Defense report illustrates the extent to which Congress regularly appropriates billions of dollars in defense spending over and beyond what the Pentagon even asks for. This is particularly relevant now with lawmakers taking up the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Concord policy director Tori Gorman says the report – put into last year’s NDAA by Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), a former Pentagon and CIA official, shows how easily overlooked expenditures can blow a sizeable whole in the federal budget.

“The report found that Congress funded over 300 programs and activities in defense related appropriations bills at amounts greater than $20 million each above what the Department of Defense had requested. And the increases for those 300 programs and activities added more than a total of $58.6 billion to the defense appropriations bills last year. That’s a lot of money. When we’re talking about right now Congress is fighting over extending the Affordable Care Act expanded health care premium subsidies, that’s $45 billion over two years. Here, Congress added $58.6 billion in one year to a defense appropriations bill. So that gives you an idea for priorities and what’s going on here.”

Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join my guests and me as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.

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