Government Spending on Autopilot: Prepare for the Crash

Congress must take control of the federal budget process, which means taking responsibility for all spending programs to get the deficit under control. If Congress doesn't start relearning how to fly, we all need to be prepared for a fiscal crash.
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Last summer, a Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee study on the use of autopilot inaircraft drew a sobering conclusion: too much reliance on automation and technology are degrading pilots' flight skills. Indeed, reports indicate autopilot malfunctions were a contributing factor in numerous airline accidents in recent years.

Perhaps members of Congress should consider the implications of those findings as they take up this year's federal budget and appropriations process. Because with a majority of federal spending now running on autopilot, we're setting ourselves up for a fiscal crash.

What do I mean when I say the budget is "on autopilot"? Right now, vast swaths of government spending are classified as "mandatory." That means certain programs are funded automatically. In other words, they are funded outside of the yearly congressional budget and appropriations process.

Most Americans don't realize it, but more than half of federal spending falls into the mandatory spending category: think Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. (To be exact, 56 percent of all federal spending was spent on mandatory spending during the government's last fiscal year.) Meanwhile, as of last year, just over a third (37 percent) of the federal budget is categorized as "discretionary" spending. This is the part of the budget over which Congress has decision-making power through the yearly budget and appropriations process.

In the last year, Congress has attempted to tackle spending in two ways. First, in August 2011, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which laid out steps to reduce the deficit over ten years in exchange for an immediate increase in the national debt ceiling. But if you look closer at these numbers, many of the "cuts" are not actual reductions in spending -- they simply represent a slower rate of spending growth -- and entirely come from the discretionary spending category, the smallest part of the federal budget.

The Budget Control Act also established the so-called super committee to identify further potential deficit reduction targets. However, the committee failed to arrive at an agreement by its November deadline, so a series of scheduled automatic cutstotaling $1.2 trillion are now slated to go into effect in January of next year (and will be spread out through 2021).

According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, of these cuts triggered by the super committee's failure, 71 percent -- almost three-quarters -- come from discretionary spending categories. Getting a serious handle on growing spending in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, some of the biggest programs in mandatory spending? It won't happen under this plan.

Worse yet, after the bitter trench warfare and brinksmanship of the 2011 debt ceiling deal, not only have we failed to achieve serious budget savings, it's probable we'll hit the debt limit again this year, sooner than was originally expected. That means Congress is likely to find themselves in a new debt ceiling showdown before a single cut triggered by the super committee's failure has taken effect.

Do you see a pattern here? Congress has repeatedly abdicated its responsibility for effective oversight and decision-making on critical questions of how the federal government spends money.

At a House Oversight and Government Reform on March 21, Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) proposed an interesting hypothetical question to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. If the upcoming debt ceiling increase could be "the last debt ceiling increase you could ask for -- the final one -- and you had to make it large enough for all current and future obligations, what would the request need to be?" "I just can't do it in my head," Geithner eventually said when pressed on the question. But the number "would make you uncomfortable."

There is a reason the number causes an uncomfortable feeling: autopilot spending is driving this nation into bankruptcy. President Obama has shown little inclination to step up and show real leadership on this issue. Meanwhile, the budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, is an improvement. Credit Ryan for seeking to preserve the Medicare guarantee while keeping costs down and personalizing Medicare for seniors. However, his budget proposal doesn't address the growth in Social Security spending.

What should Congress do? Take a cue from the world of aviation. One recommendation stemming from the FAA autopilot study cited above is that pilots should devote more time to manual flying, rather than relying on automated systems, so they are better prepared at recognizing the warning signs of an emergency. "We're forgetting how to fly," explained the committee co-chair, a pilot himself.

There's a lesson for Congress there: enough with the autopilot spending. Congress must take control of the federal budget process, which means taking responsibility for all spending programs to get the deficit under control. If Congress doesn't start relearning how to fly, we all need to be prepared for a fiscal crash.

Lenwood Brooks is policy director of Public Notice, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit dedicated to providing facts and insight on the economy and how policy affects our financial well being.

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