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Senator Lankford Slams President’s Budget, Calls for Reforms to Budget Process

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WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today delivered a speech on the Senate floor about today’s release of the President’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal and some needed reforms to the Congressional budgeting process in order to address our debt crisis. In the speech, Lankford proposes reforms such as biennial budgeting, government shutdown prevention incentives, and the elimination of budget gimmicks.

President Obama’s $4.1 trillion budget proposal calls for $1.1 trillion in discretionary spending, an amount that abides by the caps set in last year’s Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which Lankford voted against.

While serving in the House, Lankford introduced the Government Shutdown Prevention Act, which would incentivize timely budget deals by creating an automatic Continuing Resolution (CR) for any regular appropriations bill not completed before the end of the fiscal year. After the first 120 days of not completing a budget, the auto-CR funding would be reduced by one percentage point and would continue to be reduced by that margin every 90 days.

Full Transcript:

Mr. President, today the President of the United States unveiled the last budget of his presidency. $4.1 trillion. Of that $1.1 trillion is discretionary spending; that’s the amount that congress will then discuss over the next few months. It’s no big secret that presidential budgets typically are dead on arrival. This one is especially so, obviously it’s the last one of the president’s term. It’s required by the 1974 Budget Act that the president turns in his budget by the first Monday of February. It’s actually now into the second week, it’s a week late, but hey, it’s closer to on time than other presidents’ budgets have been in the last few years.

There are a lot of wish list items in the president’s budget. It also includes about $3.4 trillion in new taxes over the next ten years. It increases spending by $2.5 trillion over the next ten years, including next year. Challenges in the president’s spending plan: it increases spending so much that we also continue to increase the deficit, the debt, and our interest payments. This body should realize that on current track, the Congressional Budget Office and the president’s budget that he released today forecast that within the next ten years, the United States of America will spend more on interest on our debt than we spend on national defense. I want everyone to soak that in. Within ten years, the federal taxpayer will spend more on interest on our debt, our debt payments, than we spend on national defense.

When the president came into office, there was $10.6 trillion in total debt. The president’s budget lays out a plan that by the end of his budget that will be $27.4 trillion in total debt. This is an issue for us, and it continues to accelerate. And until this body and until the House and until the White House agrees this is a problem, it will not be solved.

I don’t say this flippantly. The president and I have had this conversation. He does not believe that increasing deficits, that is, overspending what we bring in, is a problem. He believes as he has shared with me and as he has shared with the American people publicly that if the government overspends a little bit, that stimulates the economy. Well, that might be true in some economic formula, but when our interest payments are larger than total what we spend for defense, we’re in a spiral that we cannot sustain. We cannot keep saying we’ll add more debt every year and there is no reckoning for that.

Our total debt right now exceeds our gross domestic product. Literally if you took from every single American in the entire country, all of their income for the entire year, we could not pay off our debt. We are very much at a tipping point, and the problem that Congress faces is Congress never seems to act until they have to, and in this time in an economic crisis when you have to, it’s too late. How do we get on top of that? How do we stop bragging about how much the deficit has been cut and actually start reducing our debt, because for many Americans, they don’t hear the differences between that because they don’t live in this world of all these different terms. Deficit is how much you overspend in any one year. Debt is the accumulation of all those deficits. And as Washington continues to talk about, you know what, in the last six years, we have cut the deficit by a trillion dollars, well, that’s a good thing but the problem is in the last ten years, the debt has also doubled.

As deficits are still so large every single year that there’s a problem. So what do we do with this? I would say there is multiple things. One is we’re not going to get out of this in any one time period. This body needs to understand this is not a car payment we’re paying off. This is a really big jumbo mortgage. We’re not going to pay this off in one year and we’re not going to fix it all in one stroke. This is going to take multiple years of picking away at this.

I have reminded several of my colleagues of this one sobering fact. If we were to balance our budget and set this 10-year time period and actually balance the budget, if the next year after our balanced budget we had a $50 billion surplus—50 billion—if we had a $50 billion surplus as a nation, it would take 460 years in a row of $50 billion surpluses to pay off our debt. Twice as long as we’ve been a country if we had a $50 billion surplus every year, we could pay off our debt.

At some point we have to admit this is a really big issue. CBO has continued to rattle our cage—that’s the Congressional Budget Office, as all of us know in this room. CBO has continued to rattle us and remind us that this debt is continuing to grow, and we do not have the resources to do it. For the time since 2009, our deficit will rise again next year to $544 billion. That’s up 24% from just this last fiscal year. As we continue to have more individuals that retire and they use Medicare and they use Social Security that they’ve set aside their entire life to go into, as that number continues to rise, and as discretionary spending continues to stay fairly capped, we’re not getting on top of the big issues that we face. So where do we go from here?

Let me just mention a couple of things. One is in 1974, this congress created something called the Congressional Budget Act, which set up the process of how we would actually do our budget every year. It set this very interesting process with the House and Senate passing budgets, putting them together, going through the process, getting from the president. All the timing, everything was set up. Appropriations bills, how they would be done, all the deadlines. The interesting thing is since 1979, the Congressional Budget Act and the way that it was set up, since 1979, it’s only worked two times. Twice since 1979. Would anyone else admit that there is a problem with the way this was set up?

Coming out of Watergate in 1974, they wanted more transparency, they wanted this open process. They wanted a way to be able to do the budget, and so they created this process that is so cumbersome that since ’79 it’s only worked twice.

To give you some more up-to-date details, in the last 10 years we should have passed 118 appropriations bills, in the last 10 years. We have passed of that 118 appropriations bills, only seven of those individual bills on time. Seven of 118. We have a problem just in basic process. So let me throw a few ideas out at us that I would recommend to this body that we consider, because if we’re going to fix our debt and our deficit, we also need to look at the process of how we actually do budgeting and fix this.

So here are a few thoughts. Biennial budgeting. If we don’t do a budget every year, we do a budget every two years. We’re dealing with trillions of dollars. We should at least do a little bit of advanced planning, don’t you think? We should be able to do that two years in advance. To be able to lay out how we’re going to actually do the spending and do biennial budgeting. Now we could do appropriations every single year to be able to provide the accountability, but at least the major budget process we should do every two.

We should get rid of the budget gimmicks that dominate this body and how we—quote, unquote—“balance our budget.” Budget gimmicks like pension smoothing, corporate timing shifts, and all of our favorite: CHIMPS—changes in mandatory programs. Which everyone outside of this city thinks is a monkey and everyone inside this city knows it is just a great budgeting technique. Here’s how some of those work.

Here is an example from October’s budget agreement. The pension payment acceleration in section 502 changed the due date for pension premiums from October 15, 2025 to September 15, 2025 in order to get $2.3 billion into the 10-year window. What just changed there? They moved a payment time 30 days forward and said that’s when it’s due and so since they moved it 30 days forward 10 years from now, now suddenly that’s another $2 billion into the federal budget. Now if our federal budget wasn’t 10 years, it was 10 years and two weeks, it would have been $2 billion short. But because they moved that payment over a month and made it a little bit earlier, it suddenly picks up $2 billion. It’s not real. That’s a gimmick.

The changes in mandatory programs that go out there. Take something like the Crime Victims Protection Fund, a fund of money that it is expected we will spend that fund of money, but when we don’t spend part of it, they’ll say, great. We will take that part we were “expected to spend” and actually spend it this year, and then guess what? Next year you spend it again, next year you spend it again. It’s a gimmick. That should be struck. We shouldn’t have little gimmicks like that. Those things make Congress look good but don’t actually deal with our deficit and debt.

There are rules that are internal that need to be fixed. We need to get real numbers and be able to have agreeable real numbers. Right now there is the big argument all the time saying how does the budget balance against the president’s budget? How about this particular baseline, that particular baseline? To have an agreed upon set of numbers we can go with. We have a lot of programs that have not been authorized, some of them in more than a decade, but we continue to allocate money for every single year. Authorizing programs, as we do for national defense, every singles year is important for us to actually do the work of that, to be able to bring bills to the floor and be able to get it done.

We have reports from the GAO and from the IG that come out every year showing waste, yet many of those, no one ever acts on. Three different folks that I see on the floor right now—Senator Flake from Arizona, Senator McCain from Arizona, and my office—all put out waste reports in the past five months detailing billions of dollars in waste. We can identify these things. The inspector general’s office can identify these things. The GAO can identify these areas. We need to set a process in place in actually solves those things. And we can do more than talk about it, we can move it from just a messaging moment to solutions on our debt and our deficit.

I have recommended things like the Government Shutdown Prevention Act to say we don’t have the government shutdowns. Now I understand some are very romantic about government shutdowns and what they would accomplish. Government shutdowns always cost more money to the taxpayer than is saved. Always. And they cause a tremendous amount of turmoil in the federal workforce in multiple places. There is an easier way for us to handle this. Congress only acts when we have to. When we have a government shutdown, suddenly we have to. How about we do something very simple and straightforward? We put in place, if we get to the end of a budget year, at the end of that budget year it we do not have a budget in place and do not have proper appropriations done, we have a short-term continuing resolution for 30 days that automatically goes in place and all legislative offices and the executive office of the White House get a funding haircut immediately to create the incentive that we need to act. If 30 days later we still don’t have the appropriations done, the executive office of the White House, the House and the Senate, get another haircut and continue to press.

There are ways that we can add the pressure to us that don’t actually damage what’s happening in the rest of the nation. Why don’t we do those things? Why don’t we pass some things like a balanced budget amendment that we’ve talked about forever? That we voted on in 2011 and it had not come up again. We will never get to some of these things until Congress is compelled to do the right thing. So let’s put some process in place. Beginning with our budget process and real reform of how we do the budget and real structural changes here to actually push this body to do what everyone outside of this body says needs to be done.

In the days ahead when we’re spending more on interest than we are on national defense, this body should hang its head in shame. But before that occurs, we should fix it so that never happens and we can get on top of our debt and our deficit with a straightforward process that actually gets us back to work. With that Mr. President, I yield back.