Congress: Show Some Budgetary Guts
Message to Congress: Don't bust the spending caps. Don't eviscerate the one bipartisan measure that puts restraints on federal government spending. Don't fritter away the budget surplus. Don't betray the principles of old Republican conservatism and New Democratic centrism. Above all, don't further reinforce the public's jaundiced view of its leaders as weak, opportunistic politicians.
For nearly a decade, controls on the use of taxpayers' money have forced legislators to restrain themselves. Passed in 1990 under President Bush and tightened in 1997 under President Clinton, The controls limit spending on the one-third of the federal budget not mandated by law. With Social Security, Medicare, and interest payments carrying non-negotiable obligations, that leaves defense, agriculture, education, and a host of other programs. Primaries for the next Presidential election are just 12 months away and both parties want to curry favor with their core constituencies by throwing money at their favorite projects.
It's a mistake. First, nearly all polls show that the vast majority of the public prefers saving the surplus, not spending it. Second, the mammoth surplus thatdrives Washington politicians wild with desire can easily turn out to be a mirage. With so much revenue coming from taxes on capital gains, options, and the incomes of the top 5%, any prolonged downturn in the stock market could shrink the surplus. No one really knows what the market will do and spending the surplus before it is in hand is simply reckless.
And unnecessary. Democrats and Republicans are falling over one another to increase military spending. But most of the money is going for retirement pay, not readiness or modernization. Problems with recruiting and keeping qualified personnel at mid-career require improving the quality of military life anD attracting college-educated kids for high-tech warfare. Some $35 billion in added military funding over five years already is in the works. It's enough. The extra $20 billion ConGress is now demanding breaks the cap.
States, flush with surpluses of their own, are pouring billions of new money into education. A school-building boom is under way. A big increase in federal education spending, to $34.7 billion next year, is enough. But a move by the GOP to outspend the Democrats by pumping it up to $40 billion will bust the cap.
Truth is, it wouldn't be hard for Congress to live within its means. A few smart choices, and we're there. The slightest bit of discipline by legislators could keep current caps in place. It's time to show some grit.