Last week, Washington, D.C., reminded us it lives by a different set of rules.
That’s when Congress passed a spending bill that provided much-needed military funding—but also busted the budget caps that had previously held the line on federal spending.
The result? An estimated $1.5 trillion will be added to the national debt, which is already so large it endangers America’s future.
Now, if you or I spent beyond our means, we’d be in big trouble—fast. First would come the warning letters and calls from our creditors. Then our paychecks would be garnished. A rather lethal-looking gentleman would appear on our doorstep to repossess our car. And the bank would take our house.
But in Washington, none of those are going to happen. Because the debt it has just incurred will be shifted to us, our children, and our grandchildren.
In response, concerned Americans are calling for reform. As The Heritage Foundation tweeted last week, “Congress is bankrupting the country and robbing future generations of Americans to pay for it.” That’s why Heritage’s “Blueprint for Balance” offers detailed solutions that would reduce federal spending by more than $10 trillion over 10 years.
And yet, little may change unless Washington itself is changed.
You see, our government is run by rational men and women who have to operate in a very irrational environment. And their leaders, who are champions of fiscal responsibility, manage legislative bodies that are not conducive to it.
Here’s what I mean: Members of Congress want to please their voters so we’ll keep re-electing them. They know we’re worried about the government’s debt and the economic collapse it could cause, but every time they try to cut spending, they get an earful from angry folks back home.
So they’re stuck—do they cut spending and pay down the government’s debt even if it means losing their jobs? Or do they keep on spending, try to ignore the mounting fiscal crisis, and get re-elected? One look at the spinning U.S. Debt Clock is all that’s needed to see how they’re answering these questions.
With so much more red ink suddenly splashed on the federal government’s already staggering $20.6 trillion debt, the time for action is now.
That’s why I think we should make Washington work like the rest of us do.
Just imagine the impact of a very different dynamic: What if the total amount the federal government could spend in a given year was directly linked to how well our economy was doing?
If the government’s total budget (including all spending and special-interest tax loopholes) was limited to a fixed percentage of the nation’s wealth (defined as gross domestic product, or GDP), this is exactly the connection that would be forged.
Structured with economic fluctuations in mind, this model would allow for greater safety net spending during downturns while requiring cutbacks during economic booms. Meanwhile, the only way the government could spend more money is if the economy grew. And if the economy didn’t, the government would have to cut back on its spending.
That’s the way my family operates, and I bet it’s how yours does too. When our income goes up, our spending can too. And when our income shrinks, we have to make do with less. Millions of Americans live this way every day, but in Washington it’s unheard of.
Now, also imagine that if the government ever spent more than was allowed (except in cases of declared economic or military emergency), across-the-board cuts would be imposed—with one difference: instead of starting with cuts to the programs we as citizens use, the cuts would begin with the salaries of the president, the vice president, and every member of Congress.
That too is just how the rest of America lives, since who among us gets paid if they don’t get their job done? It would also achieve a lot of good. First, our elected representatives would face the same workplace pressures those of us with a job do now—perform or get no pay. Just as important, Washington would make economic growth job No. 1, if only to avoid the career-ending embarrassment of forced salary cuts.
In such an environment, priority action would be taken to grow the economy and enable businesses to create more jobs. Infrastructure repairs and energy dominance would move to the top of the list. So, too, would much-needed fixes to the problems keeping so many people from being able to work, like failing schools, stifling regulations, and anticompetitive licensure laws.
These procedural reforms may seem like a stretch, but think back to what I said a moment ago. Our representatives are very rational individuals who depend on their constituents’ support. So if Americans were to demand changes like these, they would happen.
It’s not too late to save the incredible promise that is America. But, first, we have to get our government to make economic growth, job creation, and an end to runaway debt its highest priorities. And making Washington work like we do seems a logical—and long-overdue—place to start.
This piece originally appeared in the Daily Signal