As Congress returns to Washington, the crucial decisions that await lawmakers will have enormous financial ramifications for the country for years to come. House and Senate leaders continue their struggle to land a health care bill on the President’s desk this month, even though proposed legislation would add to the federal deficit long-term, requires states to spend more on programs they are currently seeking to cut back on, and slam Americans of all incomes with new taxes. Accompanying the health care debate is the attempt to raise the ceiling on the national debt, giving Congress even more spending ability. All of this follows in the wake of the failed and costly stimulus bill.
From the behavior of our elected officials, one might think a government spending crisis was non-existent, or at least a long way off in the future. Think again, folks—it’s here.
In a recent editorial, Harvard’s Stephen Goldsmith discusses why it’s time for all levels of government, from local to federal, to come to grips with the fact that today’s budget deficits are not a short-term byproduct of the recession. Rather, deficits are due to the long-term dilemma of big government which makes massive promises of public services that it simply can’t pay for. Judging from the agenda of the current Congress, this is a problem which is on the verge of exacerbation, rather than extermination.
In order to truly address the growing federal deficit, lawmakers must abandon past strategies for addressing economic downturn. Says Goldsmith, “We need to break out of our old patterns of thinking and break some old habits.”
First of all, federal aid for the states will not cure, but simply delay the effects of, state budgetary trouble. The stimulus bill exemplifies this point. Federal dollars provided short term relief, but will force state budgets into the red when federal aid ends. This does nothing but prolong needed change.
Secondly, deficit spending must come to an end. Peterson and Pew Foundations show in a recent report that under current conditions, the public debt could rise to 100% of GDP by just 2022. This would inevitably lead to an unprecedented fiscal crisis. Tax increases won’t solve the problem, either, but would instead stifle economic growth and place heavy burdens on Americans already struggling to make ends meet. Lawmakers must resist the urge to delay the effects of the growing deficit until sometime down the road when someone else will be in office to deal with it. The devastating effects of out-of-control government spending can be averted if elected officials take responsibility and address the problem now.
Finally, state and federal legislators and the public alike need to get serious about the financial crunch the country is facing. Short-term fixes, like hiring freezes and employee furloughs, are not enough to address the issue at hand.
Rather than continue to throw small solutions at a big problem, it is time for the United States to rethink the public sector. The reality is that government’s promises to the electorate are unsustainable in the long-run and will drive the country to ruin if left unaddressed. As Goldsmith puts it, “Like it or not, fiscal crisis is the new normal.”