June 29, 2006

June 29, 2006 | Commentary on Political Thought

Lawmakers can't cut and run from huge looming deficits

It happens to a lot of us. Credit card offers pour in, we sign up for too many cards -- then wind up spending ourselves into a deep hole. The only solution: Cut up the cards and cut back on spending until the debt is paid down.

Which brings us to Washington.

In recent years, lawmakers have been spending like a college freshman with a fistful of new credit cards. They've jacked up federal spending by 45 percent in the five years since 2001, to a peacetime record of $23,760 per household. They've expanded entitlements and let them grow unchecked. That combination means taxpayers eventually will have to pay an enormous bill: some $46 trillion in current debt and unfunded social insurance obligations.

This profligacy has motivated Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to take steps to cut up Congress' credit cards.

Gregg recently introduced the Stop Over-Spending Act. It would do something that's long overdue: begin to fix the federal budget process.

That process is difficult for the average person to understand -- and your elected representatives like it that way. They've designed a system that virtually guarantees the government will spend more money each year. Gregg wants to change that, or at least slow the growth of spending to manageable levels.

First, his bill would reinstate caps on how much lawmakers can spend. Similar measures helped keep spending in check from 1990 through 2002, but since those caps went away, discretionary spending (the money that lawmakers choose to spend, rather than what they're forced to shell out for entitlement programs such as Medicare) has increased almost 9 percent a year.

The S.O.S. Act would force lawmakers to stop throwing our money around and start making difficult decisions about what's important and what's not. It would let Congress spend "only" $873 billion on discretionary spending programs in fiscal year 2007. Such spending would then be capped at 2.6 percent annual growth in 2008 and 2009.

Gregg's bill also would start cracking down on "emergency" spending, which is often used to cover routine and foreseeable expenditures.

Just last year, for instance, the government declared that 80 percent of counties in the United States were disaster areas. But if everything's an emergency, nothing is. The S.O.S. Act would insist that emergency spending decline from $90 billion next year to $30 billion by 2009. Congress would have to go back to deciding what really qualifies as an emergency and what should be paid for out of the regular budget.

In addition, the act would start doing something about a far bigger problem: the auto-piloted entitlement spending hikes that, left unchecked, will eat up nearly 14 percent of our nation's annual gross domestic product in just 20 years, up from 8.7 percent now.

Lawmakers don't directly control entitlement spending, so they'd prefer to ignore it. But they won't be able to do that when the bills start rolling in.

The S.O.S. Act would make it law that the budget deficit next year couldn't exceed 2.75 percent of GDP. That figure would then decline each year until it hit 0.5 percent of GDP by 2012. If the deficit climbed above the target, there would be an automatic "spending reconciliation" process forcing the budget committees to trim entitlement spending to meet the target.

Because it's difficult to project GDP  --  and therefore deficits  -- the bill might be better if it set a specific spending target for each entitlement program and forced lawmakers to meet that goal. The most important thing is to force our elected officials to pay attention to entitlements and to start bringing them under control.
One small bright spot: The House recently passed a presidential line-item veto  -- one more tool to help restrain spending.

Everyone must make choices.

A college kid may look at his credit cards and think about getting a 60-inch flat-screen TV, buying a car and touring Europe. But if he can't afford to do all three things, something has to give. It's time for lawmakers to start setting priorities, too.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute and co-author of the new book Getting America Right.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

First Appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times