The True Source of Our Deficit Woes

Congress can't continue shirking its own rules and must address the country's deficit.

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Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Under the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011, across-the-board cuts to federal spending will go into effect if Congress cannot agree on roughly $1.2 trillion in spending reductions over the next decade. The cuts are known as "sequestration," and everyone hates them. The president, Congress, even us. They were originally designed as a type of doomsday device to force Congress into doing something about the undeniable problem of spiraling government debt. It didn't work. Lawmakers have been blaming each other for the country's fiscal mess ever since, and now sequestration is actually upon us.

It is easy to see why everyone hates sequestration as policy. It doesn't effectively address our long-term fiscal problems and what it does do, it does badly. Across-the-board cuts punish effective and ineffective government programs equally. Steep cuts to federal spending will be disruptive throughout the economy. And sequestration does little to attack some of the biggest items on the federal ledger, tax expenditures and entitlement spending, so even if it goes through, we are still in a deep hole.

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

While there are lots of things we can point to as an explanation for how we got here, the common thread is the popular, if unspoken, idea that we can have below-cost government. We love to get something for nothing—or at least get something at a steep discount.  But the truth is goods and services cost money, and we can't count on having a federal government at promotional prices forever. We have been putting things on our national credit card without any plan to pay it off. In the last 10 years we waged wars in two countries, added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, passed an economic stimulus worth almost $1 trillion, and doubled our yearly defense budget. During this same period we also lowered our own taxes, several times. Is it any wonder we now have a $16 trillion debt?

If we are going to achieve a government that lives within its means, we are going to need leadership from our lawmakers in changing this mindset. This is not a popular idea, so it is no surprise that our elected officials don't want to be the one to deliver the bad news. Instead, they just blame the other party. And rage against waste, fraud, and abuse. Waste doesn't get you trillion dollar deficits. The root of our budgetary woes is our collective failure to see the forest for the trees. If we want to increase spending in one area, it needs to be accounted for somewhere else, either by raising revenue or cutting spending elsewhere.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Lawmakers designed rules meant to help achieve this balance, such as PAYGO and spending caps, but then routinely ignored them by approving new spending through off-the-books emergency legislation and other gimmicks. Or by ignoring the revenue side of the federal ledger and only requiring offsets for mandatory spending increases, such as in CUTGO. And yet, time and time again we continue to adopt programs and policies—from crop insurance and flood insurance to the transportation bill—which have deficit spending built into them.

The fiscal cliff is the byproduct of this willful ignorance. There is no shortcut for making good decisions. And there is no time like the present to start.  

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