Weekly Column: A Better Way to Determine How Your Tax Dollars are Spent

President Trump recently sent his first budget proposal to Congress. Historically, a president's budget, which is required by law to be submitted annually, is viewed as a framework for the administration’s priorities and typically kicks off the appropriations process in Congress, where we are supposed to work our way through 12 individual appropriation bills. These bills allow us to make important changes to policy in the United States. When the appropriations process works as intended, it is the best tool we have to make certain that the federal government is a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars, reining in wasteful spending and allowing us to review programs to make sure they are working as intended. The problem is, the appropriations process has only worked as intended four times in the last 43 years. Yet the process remains unchanged. It is the epitome of "Washington is broken." 


Rather than working through the separate appropriation bills individually, Congress continues to pass spending bills that preserve the status quo. I, along with a number of my colleagues in the Senate, have grown increasingly frustrated by this broken budget process and are working to fix it. 


Even when the appropriations process works as it should, Congress still only debates around 28 percent of our annual spending, as the 12 appropriations bills only include spending for defense and non-defense discretionary programs. Meanwhile, mandatory payments on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on our ever-growing debt account for 72 percent of our budget and are not even debated in Congress. They run on auto-pilot. Discussions about lowering our federal deficit must include addressing the way we manage our mandatory payments if we’re ever going to address the growing fiscal crisis we’re currently in. We simply cannot afford to continue funding the government at the same levels year after year without addressing the major drivers of our debt.


By properly managing programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, we will be protecting future generations from being saddled with debt, and also making sure those important safety nets are still available for generations to come. I often use the South Dakota Retirement System Board of Trustees as a good example of how the federal government should manage these programs: they are proactive about managing the retirement system so they can address and fix any issues well in advance. If federal mandatory programs were debated and improved by Congress every year, they would be much easier to manage and we would be in a better position to help them stay in good financial shape.


It is up to Congress to be responsible stewards of Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars. By changing the way we address our budget each year, we will be able to cut wasteful spending, make federal programs as efficient as possible and, hopefully, allow more Americans to keep more of their money so they can reinvest in the economy instead of spending it on taxes. A growing number of members in the Senate are beginning to recognize the need to actually manage and vote on the entire budget, not just the 28 percent, as has been the case for the last 43 years. I think we are making progress.