Something to Think About

One common refrain that we’ve heard over the course of the campaign is that we need to restrain the government’s out-of-control spending.  However, few candidates or elected officials actually mention their specific plans to do so.  Those who do offer specific plans to seriously reduce spending are often derided as people who want to diminish or abolish things that many Americans have become accustomed to or see as necessary to the defense and stability of our country.  These programs and expenditures are often considered “off the table” during budget and spending debates.  Indeed, when Republican congressional leaders released their “Pledge to America”* last week, they included several phrases that sound good, but don’t really address underlying issues with spending.

Case in point:  one section of the “Pledge” is entitled “Our Plan to Put Government on a Path to a Balanced Budget and Pay Down the Debt” and one of its points states:

With common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops, we will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to begin paying down the debt, balancing the budget, and ending the spending spree in Washington that threatens our children’s future.

That sounds good to a lot of people, but there are some issues.  First, “exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops” sounds to me like cuts to Social Security, National Defense, Medicare, and Veterans Benefits/Services are “off the table.”  Those four broad categories account for 53% of federal spending in 2009 (the last full year of spending), so over half the budget has been shielded from any cuts at all!  The next issue is with the amount of savings.  If we went back to 2007 spending levels (the last full year of spending before any bailouts) on all categories accept the four mentioned above, the savings compared to 2009 would be $355 billion not $100 billion.  I guess the Republicans were being conservative in their estimate–the pun was intended J.  The last issue I have isn’t that this part of the “Pledge” states that it will put us on a path to begin paying down the debt.  My issue is that there is no mention of the true sacrifices that we will all have to make to pay the debt down**.

This pledge states that the cumulative national debt is over $13 trillion (that’s 13 followed by 12 zeros)!  If all $355 billion (355 followed by 9 zeros) in savings is realized and applied to paying down the national debt (which I’m only assuming because it is not spelled out anywhere in the pledge) it would take us nearly 37 years to pay it off!  That assumes we do not take on any new debt and that there are no increases in any spending for anything, and that there is no inflation.  Even if we cut all spending to $0 accept the four categories above (and did not increase spending in those) it would take us nearly seven and a half years to pay off the debt. 

These two scenarios are unrealistic; spending cuts alone are not going to solve our fiscal problems.  We are going to need spending cuts (even among the sacred cows), program eliminations, tax changes and hard choices.  It would probably help to also have political leaders who actually acknowledge gravity of the issues, discuss them frankly with their constituents and each other, and be willing to make some of the tough decisions that need to be made.  Join the Discourse!

Notes:

* You can read the full “Pledge to America” at http://pledge.gop.gov/

**The four categories mentioned as well as detailed spending information can be found in the Historical Tables section of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) website:  http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals

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