House Republicans have cast their nay votes for the future of federal handouts to NPR. The decision was no surprise, but made headlines and was a balm to conservatives vexing over incidents that began with Juan Williams’ firing. Vengeance can be satisfying, but while Mr. Williams became a cause célèbre for cutting all manner of extraneous cultural spending, this is a hot button issue that distracts from the job at hand. The NPR decision was easy. There are serious cuts to be made that are not even destined for the table.
John Boehner’s press release after yesterday’s vote on public radio funding mentioned that each dollar Washington spends includes 40 cents of borrowed money.1 This is not the first time the speaker has used this figure, and we need to hear it more often. The Fiscal Commission concluded that U.S. debt will become so extreme that “By 2025 revenue will be able to finance only interest payments, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.”2 A new Congressional Budget Office report shows how we grew our debt from $5 trillion in 2007 to $9 trillion in 2010, a breathtaking 62% of GDP.3 According to CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf, to address the debt crisis “…the policy changes that are needed will significantly affect popular programs or people’s tax payments or both.”4
The offenders Elmendorf refers to are not the programs and giveaways that elicit partisan offense, inflame voters, and make headlines. They are the safety nets that many Americans rely on: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.5 Americans are growing older, millions of jobs have been lost, and these programs are demanding too much of the federal budget. Without reform, our safety nets will sink us.
This is not new information. What is alarming is the increasing frequency with which the CBO has been upgrading its warnings. The necessary cuts cannot be made without hurting people, but lawmakers know and fear that cutting entitlements is political disaster.
Taxpayers are being sent streams of press releases parading targeted, feel-good spending cuts, and partisan exchanges that have degenerated into Democrats blaming Republicans, and Republicans blaming Democrats for killing jobs. Both parties are trying to do the impossible by appealing to their support bases with cuts that are acceptable only because their lack of substance will not get the job done. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have shown that they have the stomach to suggest the type of serious cost-cutting recommended by federal watchdogs, and the impasse on Capitol Hill provides a convenient excuse for accomplishing nothing (see: Spending Cuts Are Only Possible in Principle).
Both parties have drawn Americans into the discussion using jobs as the carrot, and debt and deficit as the stick. Legislators concerned about their political longevity will be loathe to get behind a microphone and suggest that we raise the Social Security and Medicare eligibility ages, slash the public sector workforce, stop using Medicaid as universal health care, stop propping up states with agenda-based spending like “Winning the Future,” stop using Social Security as income replacement for non-retirees, or take any of the other measures that, collectively, will make a real difference. If there is a legislator in Washington who has the constitution to demand that we look at these types of reforms, the time to stand up is now. The country cannot wait any longer.