The Federal Budget Accountability Act—introduced last month by U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., as H.R. 1999—is a short bill, barely two pages long. But it aims to help Congress answer a basic oversight question: how much revenue does the federal government actually receive each year from offsets?

As part of the congressional budget process, Congress gathers estimates of revenues to be received by the federal government, which can be used to “offset” authorizations for spending. For example, as a Buck press release points out, Congress authorizes the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to sell oil. “However, the price of crude oil continuously fluctuates … [which] creates uncertainty regarding the accuracy of Congressional Budget Office projections versus actual revenue received through offsets.”

I had the chance to speak about the bill with Buck, who came upon the issue soon after he arrived in the House in January 2015. “There was not a moment when a lightbulb went off. It was a series of statements about how new spending was ‘paid for,'” he said.

On its face, Buck’s bill may seem utterly unobjectionable. It requires nothing more than that the Office of Management and Budget annually report to Congress on the actual revenues received from offsets. Obviously, it is a basic fiduciary duty to discern whether the revenues received actually cover the costs as intended. A few members of the House Budget Committee are cosponsoring the legislation.

But will H.R. 1999 advance? It’s not clear. Buck suspects that additional spending is being passed off as budget neutral by the misuse of overly optimistic offsets. (On offsets and spending amendments in the House, see this CRS report.) “If they pass the bill, the misrepresentations will be known,” he told me. Enacting the legislation could collectively call out Congress and make the already tough debates over mandatory spending more difficult. “Nobody wants to know what the answer is,” Buck reports, “but we all know. … We just don’t know how bad it is.”

Image by lkeskinen

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