Our politicians work hard. Much harder than I realized before doing research for this post. After reading, I trust you'll agree they deserve a vacation from all their hard work. The longer the better.
No mere number can shock us anymore when it comes to how much the United States spends. The billions and trillions roll off the tongue and out of our heads without leaving an impression.
Instead of trying to startle you with a number, I'm going to ask you to come on a journey with me instead. Don't worry. Unlike everything else this post covers, our journey won't cost us a thing. We make this journey with just our wonderful, powerful imaginations.
When we're done, I suspect something of our journey will remain in your head.
How hard is it to spend money?
Some of you may have seen the 1985 comedy movie Brewster's Millions. Richard Pryor plays Mr. Brewster, who must spend $30 million in 30 days to inherit $300 million. He's not allowed to own any assets, destroy the money, or give it away.
The movie hilariously illustrates how difficult it is to spend $1 million every day for a month and have nothing to show for it.
Brewster's Millions also illustrates another point very well, which is how much inflation quietly erodes the value of money.
The movie is based on a 1902 novel of the same name by George Barr McCutcheon. In the original novel, Mr. Brewster must spend $1 million in the course of one year or forfeit a $7 million inheritance. For a similar comedic effect, by 1985 the amount to be spent grew to $30 million, and the spending period shrunk to one month.
Already in the 1980s, we were getting used to big numbers. It took much bigger numbers to get our attention.
What does Congress actually do all day?
In short, Congress spends taxpayer money. With hundreds of years of practice, they've gotten pretty good at it.
Congress approves all spending by the Federal government. Although they hold endless hearings grandstanding about this or that hot-button issue, their most consequential activity is authorizing spending.
All government spending can be traced back to specific Congressional authorization. Most of it comes in the form of laws passed by Congress.
Don't be fooled by the talk of "non-discretionary" spending. Congress is quick to point out that some two-thirds of Federal spending is non-discretionary or "mandatory," with the implication being that they're not responsible for it. That's nonsense.
Mandatory spending, also known as direct spending, is mandated by existing laws. That just means a law Congress passed previously. It's still spending authorized by Congress.
Congress saying they're not responsible for mandatory spending would be like you saying you're not responsible for any of the monthly recurring payments that show up on your credit card bill. Try telling that to Netflix, your car loan provider, or the bank holding your mortgage.
Discretionary spending simply means new spending not previously authorized by Congress. And if you've heard the term supplemental spending, that means appropriations made outside the normal budget cycle. It is also new spending approved by Congress.
Congress by the numbers – who approves what
This is the part where we discuss some numbers. I'll try to keep it high-level and relevant. I took all spending and deficit figures from the St. Louis Fed: Government total expenditures, and Federal Surplus or Deficit.
Congress has a total of 535 voting members, 435 in the House of Representatives, and 100 Senators.
In the last 10 years, Congress met for an average of 162 days per year to conduct business, so-called Legislative Days.
So, 535 voting members, meeting 162 days per year to spend taxpayer money. What can our hardworking representatives manage in that time?
Last year the government spent about $9.6 trillion. Here's what that represents:
- An average of $59 billion for each day Congress met
- An average of $110 million for each member of Congress per day
Now if you're wondering whether the U.S. has such overflowing coffers, we don't. A great deal of the money Congress spends is money we don't have.
Congress spends every penny of taxes America generates and then spends another 30% on top. Think of Congress as holding the world's largest credit card, and they're running up America's balance. By how much, you ask?
- Last year, every single member of Congress approved approximately $30 million in new deficit spending for every day Congress was in session. That's almost $16 billion in extra deficit spending a day.
Now you see what I mean when I confess my awe of our hard-working representatives. What Mr. Brewster hilariously nearly failed to do over a month, every one of them manages to do every day on the job: make $30 million disappear with nothing to show for it.
Although now that I think of it, our members of Congress are leaving behind something tangible – a credit card bill the size of which the world has never seen.
What would happen if Congress took a break?
Why is it that our instinct is always to do something, anything? It's obvious we often make things worse by taking action. Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing we can do.
Doing nothing is not a politician's first instinct. For every problem, they have a solution, and it almost always involves spending money.
Have we really come through the last hundred years without writing enough laws and regulations? Can we honestly say that every new law makes things better?
Now I'm going to really challenge your imagination.
Imagine what would happen if we told our Congressional representatives to simply stay home next year. "Thanks so much. We have everything covered. You sit back and take it easy for a while."
To keep the lights on, let's stipulate that all "mandatory" spending would continue at prior-year levels. Discretionary spending would also continue unchanged from prior years. But no new laws and no supplemental appropriations.
How long could America operate in this way? One year, two years? Ten? Think how much money we'd save just by virtue of not ramming through trillion-dollar omnibus spending bills in the last days of December.
Now, I suspect some of you are thinking that occasionally Congress does take up an issue of substance. Sometimes a new law is needed. Agreed. How about we let Congress address one topic at a time, and only one?
And then require that they discuss it thoroughly, for a Brewster month at least, before putting it to a vote. No more "you have to pass the bill to find out what's in the bill" pressure tactics.
If members of Congress get bored, they could use the pause to, e.g.
- Revisit existing laws – ask which worked well, and which did not. Were there unintended consequences? Are there any laws we no longer need? Give Congress the ability to consider one new law for every five existing laws they remove.
- Revisit existing bureaucracy – confront the sunk cost fallacy. Ask if we didn't already have a particular agency or department, would we establish it now?
- Revisit existing spending – examine and justify again all mandatory spending.
- Talk with their constituents to find out what they really want Congress to do.
I'd love to hear what you think. Could any of this possibly work? If not, why not?
And if my idea sounds scary to you, is it really scarier than what we're doing right now?
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