In a hearing on Tuesday of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Lamar Alexander said reforming “out-of-control, mandatory entitlement spending” and instituting new standards across the rest of the federal budget could help steer resources toward programs that encourage innovation and help create jobs.
The senator noted to heads of several federal agencies that mandatory entitlement spending, which made up nearly two-thirds of the federal budget last year, is taking away money from the rest of the budget, called discretionary spending. Senator Alexander said discretionary spending – which only made up about one-third of the federal budget last year – is what funds programs related to national defense, national parks and national labs, and he cited basic scientific research as a major priority. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 10 years discretionary spending will only make up about 23 percent of the federal budget.
“You’re going to have to help us deal with this problem, and we on this committee are going to have to do it,” Senator Alexander said of reforming mandatory entitlement spending. “We have to find a way to agree on that, or we’re going to render our engineering and science and research activities obsolete.”
The hearing included testimony by officials with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Senator Alexander said the federal government could free up money if it enacted entitlement reform, such as the Fiscal Sustainability Act he has introduced with Senator Bob Corker, which would reduce the growth in entitlement spending by nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years.
Senator Alexander also said government agencies should be using proven systems of accountability that set benchmarks for funding, similar to those used by DARPA, as well as ARPA-E, a small agency that funds energy research that is too early for private-sector investment. Senator Alexander said, “The other thing we need to do is we need to make sure that of the money we spend, we spend it well.”
The senator asked federal officials overseeing DARPA and ARPA-E to discuss accountability in federal spending, noting that “you have a different method of accountability that has been enormously successful” and has enabled DARPA’s success in projects that led to the development of the Internet, global positioning systems and other technological innovations.