Thanks to the prick of the human conscience, it’s hard to forget a debt. That small voice within is an internal reminder to do the right thing. Americans share a collective obligation in the form of the national debt, which has recently rocketed through the $22 trillion mark. As congressional officials strategize how to add to the $181,000 bill already owed in the name of each taxpayer, the many small voices must join together as one to declare it loud and clear: The era of irresponsible spending must be over.
The federal government has come to treat overspending as inevitable as the heat of summer. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy met together Tuesday to negotiate a new spendthrift season. Squandering the nation’s treasure was once the vice Democrats couldn’t resist and Republicans wouldn’t indulge. Now bipartisan majorities embrace it as a secret sin to indulge when nobody is looking.
In fiscal 2018, President Trump’s first year presiding over the national bureaucracy, the U.S. Treasury wrote checks totaling $779 billion beyond its revenues. It’s on track to overspend by $1.1 trillion in this current fiscal year, and is likely to do it again in fiscal 2020. Mr. Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has succeeded in leaving more money in the wallets of American workers and less in the pocket of that spendthrift uncle, and to be sure, federal revenue lost through the tax cuts may return as the energized economy expands, but the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation forecasts it won’t happen before another $500 billion is piled onto the deficit over the next decade.
The voice of conscience is timid indeed on Capitol Hill, and growing fainter every day. For legislators with ears to hear and eyes to see, the Heritage Foundation this week published its “Blueprint for Balance,” an annual analysis pointing to where budgeters can find savings to reduce waste, duplication and fraud.
“Recognizing that America will be strong only if she is on financially sound footing,” says Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James, “our experts recommend important reforms to the biggest government programs in the budget, from Social Security to health care, to protect the most vulnerable, deliver better services at lower cost, and return control of personal decisions from the Washington bureaucracy to the American people.” If only. The Heritage plan calls for reductions in federal outlays of $9.9 trillion over the next decade, resulting in a balanced budget by 2029. Accounting for the dynamics of tighter spending on the economy, annual deficits could be erased as early as 2025. To paraphrase only slightly the wisdom of the late Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, “a trillion dollars here and a trillion dollars there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money.”
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the cumulative national debt is on track to reach $28.7 trillion by 2029. At 93 percent of the gross domestic product, spending will exceed the 90 percent mark at which debt begins to eat away at economic growth.
The $9.9 trillion question, of course, is whose locks should be shorn. For a start, scaling back entitlements that have grown from molehills to mountains is essential. Social Security reforms, such as raising the retirement age and adding means testing model would save $681 billion over a decade. Alterations to Medicare, which is on course to double in cost by 2029, could save $1.1 trillion over 10 years.
Additionally, fairness dictates the elimination of narrowly targeted subsidies in the form of tax credits that Congress has granted to favored interests: The government’s use of the tax code to pick winners and losers harms American families and businesses by limiting their access to diverse products and fostering a less dynamic economy. A savings of $765 billion over 10 years would accrue.
At the other end of the spending scale there are plentiful reams of budgetary oddities whose elimination will preserve a little money and a lot of common sense. Dropping the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s catfish inspection program, for example, would save only $2.6 million annually, but few, even dedicated ichthyophiles, would miss it. The program duplicates food-safety inspections supervised elsewhere by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
It’s easy to become numb when numbers balloon to trillions (next up are the quadrillions), but legislators must harken to the righteous voice that should be still alive deep within, warning against wasting other people’s money. As the man for whom the capital was named warned us, “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
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