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Senator Enzi Says Budget Reform Is Historic

Senator Mike Enzi

Wyoming senior Senator Mike Enzi may be retiring, but that doesn't mean he's relaxing in Washington these days. This week the Budget Committee that he chairs passed a historic, bipartisan proposal to reform how the entire federal government spends money.

As we've reported before: Enzi isn't known for outbursts of emotion. But this week he was celebrating the passage of his budget reform proposal in his very Mike Enzi sort of way.

"Very exciting. Especially exciting once I found out that that's the first bipartisan budget reform bill to come out of committee in 30 years," Enzi said.

Enzi's been calling for sweeping budget reforms for years now. At one point he even proposed nixing his own Budget Committee because he felt it became useless. That's because unlike in Wyoming, in Washington the Budget Committee doesn't dole out money; that's handled by the Appropriations Committee. And Enzi was sick of laying out a budget blueprint only to see lawmakers in both parties routinely break those parameters. That's why his proposal seeks to constrain lawmakers through things like increasing transparency and giving them more power to tackle the deficit.

"This can make a huge difference for the country," Enzi said.

The new proposal does rename - and reorient - his Budget Committee by turning into the Fiscal Control Committee, which will be focused on reigning in the debt and deficit. The proposal would move Washington to a two-year budget, as opposed to the current one year one, which many blame for all these government shutdowns. It also enacts something called "portfolio review." Enzi says that will allow Congress to better evaluate spending on say federal housing policy - which he's quick to point out currently consists of "160 housing programs administered by 20 different agencies."

"Nobody's in charge. Nobody sets goals. Nobody checks to see if they did anything. A lot of the money goes to people working in D.C., rather than out where we expected the money to go. Portfolio review will make that grossly noticeable," Enzi said.

Enzi's plan also seeks to speed up the current lag between when the executive branch has spending data and when Congress is given that same data, which Enzi bemoans is currently too late in the process. All these sweeping changes seem to have come together because Enzi is trusted. Here's his lead Democratic co-sponsor on budget reforms, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, discussing why he agreed to corral his troops and help Enzi pass it out of committee.

"What Chairman Enzi has assured me of is that it will go through regular order, and there won't be tricks associated with trying to ram it onto the floor, and I am very supportive of having a robust and open process where we get to work through whatever the issues are," Whitehouse said.

That means the proposal still faces an uphill battle, which is evidenced when you ask Republican senators why the federal debt currently sits at a record high of more than $23 trillion.

"Until we really look at how we want to long term deal with Social Security and Medicare, we're not going to be able to get to a completely balanced budget," Wyoming Senator John Barrasso said.

But Senator Enzi's partner on his budget reform proposal - Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island - begs to differ with Barrasso and others in the GOP. He says the GOP runs fast and loose with the nation's credit cards when they're in power, whether under former President George W. Bush or even now under Trump.

"I think it's factually inaccurate, to say that the deficits were running and the debt load we carry doesn't relate to the unpaid for war, and two rounds of unpaid for tax cuts. I think that's just factually inaccurate," Whitehouse said.

Still, Barrasso and others in the GOP say entitlement reform is essential. He says the time to strike on these massive, and hyper-partisan issues is when there's the two parties controlling separate parts of the government.

"The time to really deal with big problems, big concerns like this is when we have a divided government. And we have a Republican Senate and president and we have a Democrat House, so it would seem that this would be a time to address the issue, and I'm ready to do it. We need to get enough cooperation across the board to get it done, because this problem is continuing to mount," Barrasso said.

While Enzi's supportive of entitlement reforms, he also avoided including those prickly issues in this deal, which is how it passed out of his committee with bipartisan support. His proposal also forces lawmakers to make long-term fiscal targets in order to avoid the rapid reforms countries like Greece and South Korea have had to adopt in recent years.

"If we do that, then we're doing the same corrective things that these other countries had to do in order to get the confidence back. And that should keep the confidence in the American dollar and also maintain the value of the American dollar," Enzi said.

As for its chances before the full Senate - and then even melding it with a House version? Enzi's holding out hope even in these hyper-partisan times.

"Well," Enzi said. "If it's bipartisan there's a chance of actually getting it finished, which is the next step."

Based on Capitol Hill, Matt Laslo is a reporter who has been covering campaigns and every aspect of federal policy since 2006. While he has filed stories for NPR and more than 40 of its affiliates, he has also written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Campaigns and Elections Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Guardian, The Omaha World-Herald, VICE News and Washingtonian Magazine.
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