Opinion

Punting or surrender?

Andrew Langer President, Institute for Liberty

Ultimately, with election victory comes the responsibility of governance. That responsibility requires grappling with the excruciating problem of making tough choices. This is something all elected officials face at some time or another, and it is the caveat for anyone interested in pursuing a political career. Problems ensue when political leaders abdicate their responsibilities—and a case can be made that such abdication is an abuse of the public trust. And when it comes to domestic policy, there is no more important issue than the creation of a government’s annual budget.

For the past three years, there has been a disturbing trend of federal legislators essentially punting their responsibilities—whether it comes to oversight of federal agencies, understanding the constitutional implications of legislation, or, at its most basic, actually reading legislation being voted upon. This seemingly fundamental misunderstanding of the role of legislators in our republic has resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of public ire, from Tea Parties to very public “dressing downs” of congressmen at Town Hall meetings.

Congress should have gotten the message, yet as proof they are deaf to their constituencies, leaders in the House have recently done—or not done—something stunning. Congressional leaders have decided that they are unable to even propose, let alone pass, a federal budget this year.

They have ostensibly done this while they await the decision of President Obama’s “Deficit Commission,” a convenient fiction created to give cowardly Democrats the “cover” necessary for a tax increase following the 2010 elections. It is not their fault, they will argue when they eventually do propose a budget. They were forced to do this because of the recommendations of the commission.

It is an excuse that doesn’t hold water. Congress has the responsibility for the budget, which means that the majority party has the responsibility for getting it prepared and shepherded through the system and passed. It is, in fact, statutorily mandated. But without any consequences, the law has about as much real power as a Las Vegas illusionist: it’s great theatre, but it really doesn’t do what it claims.

The problem is that more and more government entities (including state and local governments) are shifting these powers to unelected commissions. While some might call it mere “punting”—moving the power to some other group of individuals—it’s more accurately a form of political surrender; the functional equivalent of throwing in the towel because, well, the job is just too darn hard, and, in an election cycle, these guys want the title but they don’t want the responsibilities to go along with it.

Spending and size of government are the two top issues going into this fall election, with healthcare reform playing a role in both. Voters not only are fed up with out-of-control spending, they’re genuinely fearful of the potential economic instability runaway spending creates. Controlling that spending is infinitely more complicated when government officials refuse to release a budget detailing just how that money is being spent. It was, interestingly enough, the continued secrecy of national budgets that brought Gorbachev to power as the Soviet Union’s last premier—and opening up those budgets to greater scrutiny one of the hallmarks of his Perestroika program. How ironic, then, that more than two decades later, America is moving in that direction—an entirely wrong direction—when it comes to budgets.

Americans are tired of cowardly politicians. They are tired of being lied to, of having polls say one thing and do quite the opposite. They are hungry for real leaders—leaders who mean what they say and say what they mean. Leaders who are willing to make the tough choices, like Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey.

Whether it’s trying to shift responsibility or surrendering to the difficulties of governance, either way the result is the same: Americans’ government grows larger without anyone exercising fiscal restraint. Political leaders raise taxes to try and pay for their inability to control spending. Overall we all suffer. Unfortunately, in this case, waiting until January 2011 might just be too late.

Andrew Langer is president of the Institute for Liberty.