After weeks of squabbling, Democrats and Republicans last week finally ended their absurd game of chicken over the federal budget for the remainder of the fiscal year. With barely an hour left before the deadline, congressional negotiators agreed on a hodgepodge of barely 38 billion dollars worth of budgetary cuts that avoided a damaging shutdown of the federal government and allowed for its continued operation through September.
Republicans congratulated themselves on stopping the tide of fiscal irresponsibility while Democrats crowed about saving vital programs from the budget cutters’ ax. What neither side wants to admit, however, is the nasty truth: that this public and childish fight did nothing to ameliorate the United States’ fiscal condition. Worse yet, both parties are advocating deficit reductions strategies that fundamentally miss the point of our budget problems.
The United States’ budget deficit for fiscal year 2011 is roughly 1.6 trillion dollars, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Incredibly, roughly 40 percent of all federal spending is financed through borrowing. But even facing this grim reality, both political parties foolishly continue to dodge the issue and focus their attention on pathetically trivial parts of the budget. Most notably, Congress looks first to cut non-defense discretionary spending—what remains after subtracting interest on the debt and military spending and entitlement programs expenditures. This part of the budget does not have any of the structural problems of entitlement spending, or military spending for that matter, and costs roughly 660 billion dollars annually. Yet, it seems that politicians are constantly proposing some sort of freeze or cut on this section of the budget.
Our leaders ignore the obvious fact that even if we eliminated all of this spending (which, by the way, funds such “pointless” things as education, transportation and infrastructure), we would still be left with around a one trillion yearly deficit. Trimming this part of the budget alone completely dodges the issue and leaves the true structural problems of entitlement programs and the tax code out of the debate. This budget deal does nothing about budgetary problems, such as taxes and runaway growth in Medicare or Medicaid. It merely whacks a couple dozen billion dollars from programs like high-speed rail and nutritional assistance to the needy because politicians feel pressure to look fiscally responsible and every other section of the budget is “sacred” to some powerful political group. This is political cowardice at its worst.
In order to truly solve our debt problem, we need politicians to stop flagrantly ignoring the truth. Talking Talk about eliminating waste and fraud is nice, but I doubt there are a trillion dollars of it in the federal budget. Taxing the rich might be good politics for Democrats, but our deficit is so large that we need to do even more to make up for our past profligacy. Republicans like to say that we don’t have a revenue problem, but rather that we have a spending problem. I highly doubt, however, that even this Republican caucus, tea party wing and all, will be able to find and pass cuts totaling 42 percent of federal spending. Our representatives are approaching this problem in a way that is dangerous to our future economic wellbeing. For too long we Americans have underpaid for our government, and filled the gap with borrowing. This cannot go on any longer. We don’t need stopgap measures or publicity stunts, but rather a measured and fundamental redefinition of what we want from government and how much we are willing to pay for it. Nibbling at the edges of this problem with small and poorly thought out “solutions” will no longer work. We need to recognize the core of our problem, and we need representatives with the will to implement solutions.
Blinderman is a member of the class of 2014.