Right from the beginning, I’ll be clear how I feel about the debt ceiling negotiations. I’m ready to write a check to help fix America’s financial problems. That’s right, I’ll do it, but…
Some of my more zealously Republican readers might be tempted to stop right there, and go spray Bactine in their now-contaminated eyes- but I mean it, and I bet I have company.
However, there are conditions.
Having looked at the numbers, it’s clear that balancing the budget purely with spending cuts would leave the average Tea Party voter living like a Haitian within a few years. It’s tempting to just let them. It would cost me a lot less, both in money and hassle, but I didn’t sign up to live in a Third World country. I love America, and I’m not ready to sit quietly while much of it devolves into a vast shantytown.
Remember getting yours?
I took that money, and patriotically invested it in the stock market, losing about half of it later in 2008. Don’t worry about me. The losses offset some of my tax burden, so I’m still well ahead overall. Let no one tell you that it sucks to be a middle-aged white guy in America. But that money, like so much that was handed out in the ‘aughts, was simply borrowed with no offsetting cuts. Somebody has to pay it back.
So I understand that I need to participate in cleaning up the mess. I’m happy to share in the burden to see this country right itself, rebuild its infrastructure, protect its needy, and open up the potential of the American Dream to new generations.
But there is a condition to my willingness to accept more taxes. It has become clear to me, as it has to anyone else who is paying attention, that there is no one in Washington who has both the power and the inclination to shut down any program once it has started. No matter how ridiculous, antiquated or unnecessary the program, there is no “off” button for spending in that town.
Liberals are right of course when they point out that our tax burden isn’t all that high. But they miss the point. My old Grandpappy used to say that there’s no amount of money you can’t spend.
Under the present rules, Washington will spend everything it can get its hands on and write IOU’s for the rest. It doesn’t matter how much we raise taxes. If that’s all we do, it won’t make any difference. Did you ever lend money to that crackhead cousin of yours? You know the one I’m talking about. Let me know when that junkie pays you back. That’s how most of us feel about our own government, and that’s horribly wrong. It can change, but we need more than promises.
The budget process is stuck in an always-on position. A Congressman can always find a way to engineer a tax cut or borrow money for new spending. But the power of special interests of all types means that once a new stream of money is unleashed, an entrenched political infrastructure develops almost immediately to protect it. There is no similar interest to promote restraint, so the accelerator is always pinned to the floor.
We need proof that the process in Washington has been fundamentally transformed. There has to be a mechanism in place to review old programs or agencies, and to terminate them when appropriate. There has to be a process to make it harder to borrow money for new spending. We should evaluate the merits of every line item in the budget periodically in a public debate rather than creating programs once, and then allowing them to survive on bureaucratic inertia forever.
Prove that Washington can operate differently, and the public will respond. The budget process reforms recommended in Section 1 of the Simpson-Bowles Commission Report would be a great start. We could go further by replacing the political theater of the debt ceiling with a more stringent debt limit like the “Debt Brake” in the German system. This mechanism prevents the German government from budgeting an annual deficit greater than 0.35% of GDP.
Congress should do something meaningful to demonstrate that it has restored a reasonable balance to the budget process, and the mood in the country will change.
This doesn’t mean dismantling the government, or indulging The Confederate Dream espoused by Rep. Paul Ryan and his cronies. It just means taking seriously the notion that tax money belongs to the people, and that Congress should handle it like a fiduciary would handle funds entrusted to that fiduciary’s care.
Don’t talk to me about Keynesian theory (the Democrats’ favorite budget fantasy) or Supply Side Economics (Jesus will make our debts go away if we cut taxes). Politics renders them both moot. If those on the left who say they value government, and those on the right who say they value accountability are serious, they should have no problem embracing these reforms together.
Somebody has to stop the next Democratic President from borrowing money in our name for endless government boondoggles. Somebody has to stop the next Republican President from borrowing money in our name to write tax rebate checks to people like me.
We have to change the process.
Congress should adopt the changes to the budget process recommended by the Simpson-Bowles Commission, or find a way to go even further. Democrats should listen to Paul Ryan, and address the points he makes instead of demonizing him. They should also take genuine steps to engage reasonable Republicans (yes, we still have a few) on spending.
Congress should put to rest the notion that Washington only exists to siphon away a chunk of my income and hand it to politically connected interests. The folks in the goofy costumes would lose a massive chunk of their influence overnight if Washington could just prove them wrong.
Or let the chips fall. Those seem to be the choices.