How to Fix the Swamp Monster Federal Budget
When I was a young child, I asked my dad to explain what America’s political parties were. He told me to imagine that the country is like our backyard, and the parties argue over what we should buy. One wants to add a playground; the other thinks a pool would be best.
Some 20 plus years later, with our country plunging headlong into record-setting debt, this is still the state of things: the parties argue over what we should buy. No one wants to talk about how and where to save.
Even as Republicans and Democrats were approving the $1.3 trillion swamp monster omnibus spending bill, the United States hit another ominous record: it announced plans to borrow about $294 billion of debt, the highest per week total since the 2008 financial crisis, according to the Treasury Department. Meanwhile, the federal government is set to borrow an average of $2 million of new debt every minute in 2018. Even before the $1.3 trillion omnibus passed, the federal government was spending nearly $7 million per minute, and every taxpayer was responsible for approximately $161,000 of the debt, which just surpassed $21 trillion.
On our current course, trillion-dollar deficits will begin within the year and continue indefinitely, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The interest payments on the debt are set to outpace the cost of the military and the cost of Medicaid in just eight short years. The result is that the debt is projected to reach $24.9 trillion by 2027.
Yet our national dialogue remains stuck in the 1980s—where should Uncle Sam spend money, the parties continuously debate. Think where we would be if any other policy framework remained unchanged since the Reagan administration: if we assessed our defense needs from the strategic standpoint of the Cold War, debated whether to place an embargo on Nicaragua, argued over funding for the AIDS epidemic, or considered whether to begin an anti-ballistic missile defense initiative.
Yet here we are. To validate its status as the party that nominally cares about debt, the House GOP has now begun a quixotic campaign to pass a balanced budget amendment. It failed spectacularly, of course, as it was meant to, because balanced budget amendments are a crowd-pleasing waste of time. The practical burden of arriving at a consensus of two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate and three-quarters of the states explains why only 27 amendments to the Constitution have ever been ratified.
Instead of insulting voters’ intelligence and tilting at windmills, it is time for both parties to come together and evaluate real solutions for the bloated federal budget. Here are a few they should consider:
- To reduce the debt, lawmakers need to start with the biggest spending drivers. Any supposed fix needs to reevaluate the 70 percent of the federal budget that is devoted to autopilot spending on entitlements, over which Congress currently exercises little direct control. Social Security, retiree programs, and Medicare represent half of federal non-interest spending. To fix this, the qualifying retirement age needs to be raised in acknowledgement of today’s increased longevity, and Medicare fees and Social Security payments should reflect retirees’ actual financial means. Around 30 percent of the 65-plus population have incomes at least four times above the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. To make the system work for everyone long-term, those who can afford it should pay higher Medicare fees. Unfortunately these solutions are anathema to politicians who know retirees vote in overwhelming numbers—never mind that the Social Security trust fund is insolvent, and 94 percent of Millennials believe the program won’t be there for them when they retire.
- Defense spending needs to be paid for. National security is a legitimate expense of government—and one that should be subjected to the same oversight that every other expenditure receives. This is especially true given that the Defense Department accounts for 50 percent of discretionary spending. Eliminating slush funds like the Overseas Contingency Operations fund (OCO) and appropriating funds for the military and the State Department within the framework of the budget would be a good place to start. Yet despite having over $2.2 trillion in assets, the Defense Department has never been fully audited. This is supposed to change in November when the Pentagon promises to deliver its first ever financial audit. Until then appropriators can focus on the $2 billion the DOD continually requests Congress allow it to save by approving another round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).
- A federal waste report from Senator James Lankford details over $473 billion in spending on items that range from the baffling to the absurd, including: $2.3 million researching forms of exercise that best lead to weight loss in seniors; a $30,000 production of “Doggie Hamlet” that included human actors shouting and chasing sheep and dogs in an open field in New Hampshire; a $100,000 grant to digitize 250 hours of footage from a 1970s New York theater (equaling $400 for every hour of film converted to digital); $20,000 for an adult summer art camp on climate change; $2.6 million to care for chimpanzees that the National Institute of Health had recently stopped conducting biomedical testing on; $1.04 billion to expand San Diego’s trolley by 10.9 miles (around $100 million per mile, or nearly the same cost as building 250 miles of four-lane highways); and $200 million for a Washington, D.C. streetcar that travels 2.4 miles of the city already served by the bus system. And that’s just for starters.
- The country’s healthcare costs hit $3.3 trillion in 2016—17.9 percent of GDP. Health costs currently eat up 25 percent of federal outlays. The U.S. spends $10,348 per person per year on health care, nearly twice the average of other modern economies. While there are many potential solutions here, Congress has continued to pass the buck here by throwing money at Medicaid and Medicare without addressing substantial cost drivers within those systems.
- The government has long subsidized a baffling array of wasteful farming activities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spends $25 billion a year on these subsidies, and while politicians claim this money supports small farmers, most of the payouts go to the largest farms. In light of the serious debt the country is accumulating, the government should not be in the business of subsidizing loans and insurance for big agriculture simply because it has done so for decades. Cutting this massive program would save tens of billions of dollars per year.
- We fund a long list of projects in other countries. Even as our own infrastructure crumbles, we’ve spent almost $3 billion on roads in Afghanistan that are so neglected they’ll cost $8 billion to service. The omnibus was a treasure trove of such dubious funding priorities, many of which were tweeted out by Senator Rand Paul, including: $1 million for the Cultural Antiquities Task Force, $6.25 million for the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, $20 million for countering foreign state propaganda, $12 million for countering state disinformation and pressure, $1.371 billion for contributions to international organizations, $51 million to promote international family planning and reproductive health, $7 million promoting international conservation, $10 million for UN Environmental Programs, and $1 million for the World Meteorological Organization. While some of these may be worthy causes, funding them on credit while our Social Security trust fund is insolvent is negligence on the part of our lawmakers.
- Republicans and Democrats fundamentally disagree on how high taxes should be. However it is irresponsible to not mention the revenue side of the equation in a discussion on the federal debt and deficit. One thing should be clear: a tax cut like the one the GOP just passed, which places its $1.5 trillion cost on credit (a conservative estimate, as the bill actually provides $3 trillion in cuts by sunsetting certain provisions), is utter folly.
- Lawmakers of both parties need to prioritize the funding of our country with the same deliberation and care that families use to allocate resources. Instead of magical thinking about amendments to the Constitution or bringing the budget to balance within a one-year timeframe, which would impose draconian austerity and unleash havoc on the economy, it is time for a realistic approach. A legal structure that forces adherence to a budget that balances within a more reasonable and achievable timeframe would be one way restore confidence both in America’s economy and in Congress itself.
Barbara Boland is the former weekend editor of the Washington Examiner. Her work has been featured on Fox News, the Drudge Report, HotAir.com, RealClearDefense, RealClearPolitics, and elsewhere. She’s the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General Patton in World War II, and is a summa cum laude graduate of Immaculata University. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.