This year, millions of Americans accepted a salary freeze or even a pay cut so they could keep their jobs. They ought to be asking why the federal government isn't willing to make a similar sacrifice.
Even though faced with declining tax receipts and increased borrowing, lawmakers and President Barack Obama have ramped up federal spending -- and not just temporary spending. They intend to make this year's big increases permanent.
Washington will shell out almost $34,000 per household in 2009. That's $8,000 per household more than it spent last year. Obama's proposed 2010 budget would replace many "temporary" spending programs with officially permanent ones, meaning that by 2019 (when, presumably, this recession will be over and the economy will have enjoyed some years of growth) the federal government would still spend $33,000 per household.
That number ignores any spending that might be caused by the president's attempts to reform health care. Should his administration succeed in creating a "public option" health plan, the government could be on the hook for trillions more.
It's always difficult to make accurate long-term projections, of course, since so much can change during any decade. But all the experts -- the Congressional Budget Office, think tank economists and even the White House -- agree that our country's deficit will be massive in 2019.
Overspending isn't a partisan issue. Discretionary spending -- the money Congress chooses to spend (in contrast to entitlement programs, which are on autopilot) -- has increased 74 percent faster than inflation since 2001. That means a Republican congress and a Republican president signed off on massive voluntary spending increases, year after year. No wonder Republicans have lost their brand.
When President George W. Bush flew home to Texas this year, he left behind a $1.186 billion budget deficit. That was bad enough. But Obama's policies have made that situation even worse. In just a few months, his administration tacked another $659 billion on to that amount. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
And plenty of this spending is simple waste.
Government auditors have combed through several recent budgets and found that one-fifth of federal programs fail to improve life for the groups they're supposed to be serving. That's at least $123 billion wasted, every year.
The Government Accounting Office found that almost half the purchases made with federal credit cards are improper. How about canceling those cards? And at least $2 billion in spending for Hurricane Katrina has been stolen, with federal largess used to buy NFL tickets, champagne bottles and at least one sex-change operation.
The pity is that a balanced budget could be within reach. If lawmakers would return to the level of spending they maintained throughout the 1980s and '90s ($21,000 per household, adjusted for inflation) we could balance the budget by 2012 without raising taxes.
Doing this would require discipline, of course. That's why lawmakers should pass a strong Taxpayers' Bill of Rights. TABOR, as it's known, would help curb spending by limiting the growth of federal spending to the inflation rate plus population growth. That would save taxpayers trillions of dollars in the years ahead.
Of course, lawmakers would always be tempted to violate the TABOR limits. They already get around self-imposed spending limits by declaring any extra spending to be "emergency" spending, even if it's for perfectly predictable events such as the census. So to give TABOR teeth, it should require a supermajority -- two-thirds -- of lawmakers to override the automatic spending limits. That should limit congressional spending shenanigans.
In these difficult times, with everyone cutting back, Americans ought to expect their government to do so as well. With a Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, our government can reduce spending, balance its budget and start encouraging growth again. It's an idea that's long overdue.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the Indianapolis Star