Balancing the budget is like getting to heaven—most folks know what to do to get there, it’s just that they don’t want do it. That’s probably unfair to the faithfully upright who actually walk the walk, but the analogy is a perfect fit for Washington politicians who put the federal budget over the family budget.
Over the last few years, we have been witness to the greatest fiscal blowout in our nation’s history, much of it due to an orgy of ‘emergency’ pandemic relief spending. When we accumulated the large amounts of debt during WWII, we cut the budget and paid off the war bonds in a peacetime recovery.
Today, the spending is virtually baked-in.
The administration’s post-COVID 2024 budget of $6.9 trillion includes everything from Ukraine funding to student debt forgiveness to the expansion of Medicaid and Obamacare covering 700,000 undocumented ‘dreamers.’
Its record deficit, however, isn’t for lack of revenue. Federal receipts are now a $5 trillion dollars annually, up from $3.3 trillion just five years ago. Put another way, had spending stayed even close to what it was when I served on the House Budget Committee in 2018, we’d have a massive surplus.
As it stands, Biden’s deficit this year (including the taxpayer bailout of student debt) is approaching $2 trillion. At $33 trillion, our gross national debt is quickly outpacing our ability to service it. Interest payments on government borrowing are up 30% and heading towards a trillion dollars per year as ten year treasury rates shoot upward.
Fitch has downgraded U.S. credit ratings.
Predictably, the very the same people who had no trouble shutting down the entire economy are the ones hyperventilating about a temporary, non-essential (many federal employees are still working remotely) government shutdown that leaves entitlements untouched.
It’s a broken budget process that leaves us with these all or nothing propositions—either keep bankrupting the country and our children or shut down part of the government.
It happens every fall.
Naturally, it plays right into the big spenders strategy as they load as many ornaments as you can on the Christmas Tree until it has something everyone likes—and everyone will vote for. These are called omnibus bills, the usual result of the failure to pass the 12 annual appropriations bills.
But ‘regular order’ is no panacea either. The reason the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) has held up ‘separate single-subject’ spending bills (that they say they want) is that out-of-control appropriators continue to run amok over authorizing committees and toothless budget resolutions.
Big spenders in control of a uniparty demanding an “open-ended commitment” to Ukraine are just as responsible for ‘shutting down’ the government as the hardliners getting the blame. It is they who want a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep Biden-era levels of discretionary spending totaling $1.6 trillion on autopilot for 2024.
Yet, HFC holdouts from safe Red districts have deluded themselves into thinking fiscal restraint is plausible even within their own party under a Mitch McConnell Senate and a Don Bacon ‘Problem Solvers’ Caucus—let alone a Biden White House.
Perhaps because they know a ‘shutdown’ won’t hurt them like it will the rest of the Republican caucus in tougher districts when the media start blaming it for a ‘shutdown’ that only an endless series of CRs can prevent.
That’s the hand Speaker Kevin McCarthy was dealt when he negotiated this year’s debt ceiling bill. The Fiscal Responsibility Act reduced baseline spending $2.1 trillion over six years and, more importantly, reinstated sequester-lite cuts over the next two should Congress fail to pass the 12 appropriations bills by the end of January.
That’s exactly what Republicans should let happen because sequesters work.
Recall, the 2011 Budget Control Act, forced automatic cuts in discretionary spending should it exceed the limits set forth in the agreement, absent a broader deficit reduction package. The trillion dollar ‘sequester’ came about as deficits approached a whopping 10% of GDP following the Bush-Obama-era of reckless ‘stimulus’ spending.
The results were as predictable as they were astounding. Real spending declined, deficits shrank and the economy grew under a modicum of fiscal restraint that was still “one of the rare success stories for smaller government in living memory.”
Do I have to tell you what came next?
Both sides of the aisle quickly got together and passed deals that broke the caps while pretending to extend sequestration in name only. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 was one such scheme to bust discretionary spending limits for FY2018 and FY2019.
I voted against it.
But, as I detail in Party Animal, the Truth About President Trump, Power Politics & the Partisan Press:
A gleeful Sen. Schumer celebrated throwing out the “pointless and arbitrary sequester caps to the ash heaps of history” in the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA). Oh, and the BBA also increased spending by $400 billion over the next two years. Soon, Schumer & Co. were demanding a massive, $130 billion hike in social spending as the price for ‘plussing-up’ the Department of Defense.
Of course, the only thing “pointless and arbitrary” about the spending caps is that they could be suspended so easily. And both parties and all their factions are to blame.
Democrats are simply willing to forsake the country for vote buying. And GOP budget hawks are no match for the party’s defense hawks—including HFC holdouts Matt Gaetz and Chip Roy who voted for a budget-busting $826 billion Pentagon bill.
For reference, when I was in Congress just a few years ago the DOD was allocated $547 billion under BCA enforced levels.
The Fiscal Responsibility Act was never going to tame a woke Pentagon budget that Schumer so easily leveraged for more social spending. But it did reestablish some restraint in non-defense discretionary outlays. Unfortunately, the $246 billion in automatic spending cuts for FY2024 and FY2025 fall on just a small fraction of a gargantuan federal budget.
We know what we need to see the Pearly Gates of debt reduction—a real budget sequester that’s free from bipartisan exemptions and includes mandatory spending, the DOD and the rest of the federal Leviathan.
Don’t hold your breath.
Former Congressman Jason Lewis is the author of “Party Animal, The Truth About President Trump, Power Politics and the Partisan Press.” He also writes at jasonlewis.substack.com.
This article was originally published on the author’s Substack page, which can be viewed here.
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