How Can We Fix the Deficit?

Discussion of the Week
The House passed yesterday a stop-gap spending bill to keep the government operating through Mar 18. It would keep most agencies operating at their current funding levels but also enact about $4B in cuts as a down payment of sorts for the GOP package of $60B in spending cuts, which was approved by the House on Feb 19 but stalled in the Senate because that body was on its Presidents Day Recess. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will now attempt to get a bill across the floor and into conference in two weeks.

This is about just stop-gap spending for fiscal 2011. So far, however, nothing serious has been proposed for whittling the deficit down from its massive $1.3T to break-even. President Obama’s $3.7T budget for 2012 contains spending cuts and increases along with tax cuts and increases intended to trim $1.1T over a decade from projected deficits. Another decade without reaching break-even! Any suggestion for meaningful cost cutting is immediately dismissed as politically infeasible, so debt continues mounting for America. Just last month, the national debt increased by another $64B to $14.195T. One month earlier, it was $14.131T. In an attempt to delay hitting the national debt statutory limit this spring, the Treasury drained $158B from its cash reserves last month to support government operations, dropping its balance from $349B to $191B.

Everybody agrees that government spending and borrowing is not sustainable, but nobody can agree on a way to fix it. The biggest expenses for the government are Health and Human Services (Medicare and Medicaid), Social Security, and Defense. Neither party will tackle them.

We’ve seen this dance repeatedly over the past two decades and the result is always more spending and a growing national debt that left sensibility in the dust several administrations ago. The discretionary programs on the chopping block comprise just one third of total spending. Take away defense, as Washington always does, and what’s left adds up to just 15 percent of the budget — meaningless. Parties are discussing such line items as the $8B Obama wants for high-speed rail, against which Republicans are taking a hard stand. Who cares?

Changing administrations means nothing on this front. The top five items in the Bush and Obama budgets command the same share of spending.

Because nothing changes, it will probably take a catastrophe in the debt market to force a sudden, unattractive solution. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke pointed that out in recent testimony before Congress. Last month, he said:

“One way or the other, fiscal adjustments sufficient to stabilize the federal budget must occur at some point. The question is whether these adjustments will take place through a careful and deliberative process that weighs priorities and gives people adequate time to adjust to changes in government programs or tax policies, or whether the needed fiscal adjustments will be a rapid and painful response to a looming or actual fiscal crisis.”

We constantly hear that tough choices need to be made. What tough choices would you make? How would you solve the financial crisis in Washington? Click the comment link below to join the discussion!

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