BY CONGRESSMAN ED CASE (2002-2007) – Discouragement, concern, anger, disgust. That’s how most of us felt at the congressional supercommittee’s failure to produce a solution to our national budget crisis. In fact, our confidence in government has fallen so far that most never even expected it to succeed.
The supercommittee was not destined to fail. At least three other bipartisan groups, including the U. S. Senate’s own “Gang of Six,” proposed difficult but honest and workable solutions.
The supercommittee failed because it and Congress decided on failure for purely political reasons. There could be no more compelling evidence of what’s wrong with Washington today. But now we need to move on, face reality, and make the hard decisions required to right our nation’s finances.
First, the reality. In 2000 our annual budget was balanced and our total national debt was $5.6 trillion. We’re now running a $1.3 trillion annual deficit, our total debt just passed $15 trillion, and without action we could easily rack up another $8 trillion-plus in debt in just the next decade. On that path, there’s no reason whatsoever that we would magically avoid the fate of countries like Greece.
Revitalizing our economy and running an efficient government will certainly help. But the budget puka is so deep that “growing our way out of this” and “cutting waste, fraud and abuse” without more are just sound bite cop-outs.
Similarly, in our polarized politics, one extreme backs only tax increases and the other only spending cuts. But solving this crisis through only the former would destroy our economy and through only the latter would cripple our government.
I’ve been talking story across Hawaii as this fiasco has unfolded, and agree with most that the only real way forward is a fair combination of options — fair meaning that current tax and spending policies favoring too few at the expense of too many cannot continue; combination meaning a balanced mix of revenue increases and spending restrictions.
On revenues, I voted as congressman against the Bush-era upper income temporary tax cuts because they were unfair, unaffordable and unnecessary; they should lapse. Comprehensive tax reform to curb the plethora of special interest breaks, which just increase the burden on the rest of us, is also long overdue. These provide a solid start on the revenue side.
On the expense side, 55 percent of all federal spending is “mandatory” (mainly benefit programs), 20 percent is “defense discretionary” (our military), 19 percent is “non-defense discretionary” (the rest of government like education, health and the environment) and 6 percent is interest on our debt. Like revenues, the budget puka is so deep that no one part can be declared automatically “off limits.”
Mandatory spending can be curbed without altering the basic promises on which so many depend. National defense can be maintained with proven weapons systems rather than new expensive ones, and at post-Iraq/ Afghanistan troop levels. Non- defense discretionary growth must be fairly leveled off. These would provide a solid start on the expense side.
All of the Gang of Six, Deficit Reduction Task Force (Domenici-Rivlin) and the president’s own National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (Simpson-Bowles) got to the same basic place. Only the supercommittee and Congress couldn’t rise above the toxic political culture of today’s Washington to do its job.
That just won’t be good enough to solve our budget crisis and so many other pressing challenges. Going beyond the supercommittee will require a critical mass of independent leaders willing and able to break with the current Washington culture to face reality and make hard but fair decisions for all Americans.
If you agree with my thoughts, we need your support. It’s that simple.