Partisanship draining public trust, ex-officials warn lawmakers

WASHINGTON -- Partisan brinkmanship has hobbled Capitol Hill, jeopardizing the nation's economy and undermining public confidence in its democratic institutions, former government officials warned lawmakers Thursday.

With the national debt topping $21 trillion and with Congress ramping up deficit spending in recent months, it is crucial that members of the House and Senate work across party lines to begin addressing the nation's woes, they added.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the debt will surpass $33 trillion in 2028. Recent spending increases, combined with tax cuts, will help to push annual deficits above $1 trillion, the Congressional Budget Office predicts.

"This is not a game. This is about the fiscal health of this nation. We are facing a fiscal crisis," former White House budget director Leon Panetta told members of the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform.

The committee, which is co-chaired by U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., is supposed to recommend changes to the system by Nov. 30.

Even if the committee members don't propose changes, Panetta, who is also a former Democratic lawmaker, urged them to come up with "something that sends a signal to the American people that this place can operate the way it should, with Republicans and Democrats agreeing on tough decisions to be able to govern."

Former House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., also encouraged lawmakers to find areas of agreement, but said Congress' biggest problems are outside the joint select committee's purview.

"Please at least recognize that your basic problem is not the budget process. The budget process is simply one example of how our political system has crippled the legislative system," he said.

Under the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, lawmakers are supposed to pass a dozen separate spending bills by Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year.

But they haven't completed their task by the deadline in more than two decades. Some years, they fail to pass any of the 12 -- late or otherwise.

Instead, they pass a series of stop-gap spending measures, known as continuing resolutions, or they pass a single massive spending package.

Some lawmakers have suggested switching to a biennial process. But Obey dismissed the idea, saying annual reviews help keep agencies accountable.

"Two-year appropriations is a wonderful idea, if you want to erode congressional power, weaken Congress' ability to deal with the bureaucracy and bury the Congress in [supplemental spending bills]," he said.

Both speakers warned that the institutional problems are undermining public confidence in the nation's leadership.

"The biggest problem right now is there's a lack of trust, between branches and between members and between the people and this institution. ... If you don't have trust in our democracy, it's not going to work," Panetta said. "Somehow, we've got to find a way to restore that trust."

Obey suggested the nation's future could be bleak.

"There is no requirement in a democracy for a happy ending," he said. "We aren't going to have a happy ending unless we recognize that some fundamental things have to change."

The representatives now in office are probably incapable of fixing the problems, Obey said.

"I think it's highly unlikely that the House will be able to successfully attack these issues so long as you have the same people coming here time after time," Obey said.

Womack sounded more optimistic.

"I'm happy to report that bipartisan, bicameral consensus is steadily growing within our group," he told colleagues.

The lawmaker from Rogers didn't state the areas of agreement.

Womack and Lowey will meet later this month to begin the process of drafting a proposal, he said, encouraging all of the members to attend.

A Section on 07/13/2018

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