The worst-kept secret in Washington, D.C., is that Congress will once again fail to do its most basic constitutional job and pass legislation to fund the federal government beyond the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Although both party's leaders are slow to admit it, the annual fight over $4 trillion of federal funding is heading down a now-familiar path. Lawmakers will lurch toward a government shutdown, pass a temporary continuing resolution to keep federal doors open, and eventually agree to a last-minute omnibus funding bill — a massive trillion-dollar-plus package riddled with waste and cobbled together without public scrutiny or congressional debate.
And lawmakers wonder why their approval ratings hover in the teens.
Worse, Republicans will take the blame, because they run Congress. What a policy and political debacle a few weeks before the November elections.
So what can fiscal conservatives do to break this cycle of fiscal dysfunction? Protecting the 2011 Budget Control Act and its spending controls should be priority No. 1 for the hundreds of lawmakers who profess to want responsible government spending.
Passed by strong bipartisan majorities and signed by President Obama in 2011, the act established spending caps on the one-third of the federal budget not devoted to entitlement or interest payments. These caps have been the only meaningful restraints on federal spending during the Obama years. And they have worked — when enforced.
The Budget Control Act contributed to the decline in federal spending from $3.6 trillion in 2011 to $3.51 trillion in 2014, the first multi-year reduction in spending since the 1950s. The deficits during this time also dropped, from $1.3 trillion in 2011 to $438 billion last year. Unfortunately, absent serious reforms to the three-quarter of the budget that goes to entitlements, deficits are now relentlessly headed back to the trillion-dollar level.
The bad news is that a combination of Republican "defense hawks" have partnered with Democrats who want more social programs to eviscerate the very spending restraints many of them voted for in the first place. They have successfully leveraged the threat of a government shutdown to increase the caps three times in the last four years, limiting the law's success and increasing spending by $145 billion.
But the Budget Control Act still remains the law of the land and promises more than $420 billion in savings between now and 2021, no matter who is president. Will they stick? Only if fiscally responsible members of Congress force their colleagues to live by the promises they made.
Their best bet to accomplish this would be to immediately pass a two-year appropriations bill that locks in the budget caps for 2017 and 2018. Freedom Partners is calling this plan: "Stop, Cut, and Fix."
Here's how it would work. A two-year continuing resolution would work the same way as the two- or three-month spending bill that lawmakers are going to pass anyway: It would fund the federal government at the levels already established by current law. Under the Budget Control Act, discretionary spending is capped at $1.07 trillion for 2017 and $1.065 trillion for 2018. If kept, these caps would protect $150 billion in savings promised over the next two years.
What's more, a two-year continuing resolution would temporarily end the era of shutdowns, fiscal cliffs and other manufactured spending crises. These crises have been the higher-spending crowd's favored tool to bludgeon their opponents into breaking the Budget Control Act's caps; they use them to give their opponents a false choice between higher spending and economic catastrophe.
A two-year proposal would take this threat off the table and provide the budget certainty that both Republicans and Democrats always claim to want.
It would also give Congress more time to reform and re-establish the normal budgeting process — which has not occurred in nearly a decade. This would still allow Congress to consider a budget and appropriations bills. But any bills with higher spending would have to be passed based on their own merits, without the threat of a shutdown leading to higher spending across the board.
Republicans keep talking about the need to fix the broken budget process. This would be a first step to achieving that goal and restoring the fiscal discipline that is a prerequisite to eventually balancing the budget.
The pro-spending lobby will no doubt scream bloody murder at any attempt to disrupt business as usual. But with $19 trillion of debt, they should be forced to make the case for why a broken system is preferable to certainty and fiscal responsibility. Polls continue to show that out-of-control spending is a top priority for voters — particularly Republicans.
The onus is now on fiscal conservatives to act, and quickly. They can put forward a plan to prevent a government shutdown, provide budget certainty for two years and protect bipartisan spending caps — caps that are as necessary now as they were five years ago.
Surely that's better than sitting back and watching Congress run down the well-worn road to higher spending, broken promises and national bankruptcy.
Stephen Moore is a distinguished visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, economics contributor to FreedomWorks and author of "Who's the Fairest of Them All?" Andy Koenig is senior policy adviser at Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. To find out more about Stephen Moore and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.