When Nancy Pelosi derided the Fiscal Commission’s suggestions as “unacceptable” (see: Fiscal Commission’s Bitter Pill Outs Lawmakers’ Intentions), her more reserved colleagues must have mouthed silent thanks for saying what everyone on Capitol Hill was thinking. If behavior is any indication of intent, the lists of earmarks in the proposed 2011 Omnibus Spending Bill, and the legislative agenda for the past several months, show how sincere our leaders are about spending cuts.
Short of a ceremony signing over the White House to China, it defies reason to think that more evidence is needed to prove that the national debt is a serious problem. We will celebrate the New Year with a debt load that erupted from 2008’s $5.8 trillion to $9 trillion in 2010.1 When interest rates finally rise, our payments to finance that debt will balloon to as much as $800 billion by 2020.2
The Fiscal Commission’s suggestions were stark:
Cut spending we cannot afford – no exceptions. 3
Commission members threw down the gauntlet to Congressional leaders and the president:
After all the talk about debt and deficits, it is long past time for America’s leaders to put up or shut up. The era of debt denial is over, and there can be no turning back.4
The outcome was predictable. Instead of working with the commission’s report, and accepting news they did not want to hear from their own bipartisan panel, or even developing their own ideas, Congress pushed forward with a massive spending bill for 2011 laden with “Congressionally Directed Spending Items,” neatly organized into categorized disclosure lists.
President Obama expressed his unhappiness at the failure of the DREAM Act in a December 22, 2010 press conference, and in the next breath mentioned the unfinished work on next year’s budget:
I expect we’ll have a robust debate about this when we return from the holidays — a debate that will have to answer an increasingly urgent question — and that is how do we cut spending that we don’t need while making investments that we do need — investments in education, research and development, innovation, and the things that are essential to grow our economy over the long run, create jobs, and compete with every other nation in the world.5
The answer to the president’s question is simple: We can’t. Referring to political priorities as “investments” on which we will reap a return, or recoup our cost, is exactly the type of misguided thinking that earned us our trillions of debt. If we are intent on giving more than lip service to solving the problem, spending labeled “worthy” must be discarded as zealously as waste, just as those without jobs find themselves cutting back on food and other items most of us would consider absolutely essential.
Elected officials are so intimidated by fears of the backlash that will follow cuts to entitlements and special projects that they prefer to endorse the president’s delusion that the real issue is choosing what to spend on. Few, if any, legislators would agree that their own votes go to unnecessary spending. Both the president and legislators, including the Fiscal Commission’s Dick Durbin, continue to vex over the DREAM Act’s failure despite Congressional Budget Office warnings that the bill will ultimately increase the deficit by over $5 billion. (see: This Is How Our Government Lies). The take-home message is simple: the only spending that lawmakers consider unnecessary or wasteful is that which they do not endorse, for political reasons or otherwise.
There is huge advantage to doling out favors in times of scarcity. Those who control Washington’s purse strings possess great power and expect great things in return. Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, and even Nancy Pelosi have not stayed in office as long as they have by being stupid. They have stayed in office by letting everyone know what they can bring to the table when the going gets ugly. We are no longer living in a time of unprecedented wealth and prosperity. Our leaders know this, and they are more than acquainted with the consequences of their spending. To our detriment, it is with our fading national fortune that political power lies.