After weeks of infighting, the heavies in Washington have finally crafted a deal to keep the federal government in the green. Yet, for all the political brinksmanship, the recent political theater seems trivial. After all, the proposed 2011 budget achieves little more than a continuation of the status quo. Schoolchildren everywhere are celebrating, overjoyed that field trips to national parks will continue for the foreseeable future. But for the rest of us, a little bit of sober reflection is in order. There are no heroes here; neither political party should take pride in the farcical negations that are now nearing their conclusion. If congressional leaders are going to come to blows over a paltry $40 billion in budget cuts, our fiscal future looks decidedly bleak.
Let’s keep in mind the size of the problem we face. In February, the federal government ran the largest-ever budget deficit for a single month: $222.5 billion. In 2011, the deficit is predicted to set a new record, topping $1.5 trillion. Meanwhile, interest payments on our national debt for this fiscal year already total $94.5 billion — and we’re only halfway done.
Forty billion in spending cuts isn’t even going to scratch the surface.
Deficit reduction is a goal that both Republicans and Democrats should support — and rhetorically, they have been. Yet, when it comes down to actually hammering out a plan that turns rhetoric into reality, smart fiscal policy is inevitably forgotten and replaced by counterproductive partisan bickering.
In fact, the recent negotiations seemed sadly akin to a grand performance of a theatrical comedy, despite Harry Reid’s assurances that Congress “didn’t [make the deal] at this late hour for drama.” In this script, there were the heroic Republicans like Speaker Boehner, determined to not “roll over and sell out the American people like has been done time and time again in Washington.” Opposing them were Reid’s virtuous Democrats, who repeatedly asserted that “the Republican House leadership [should] look in the mirror, snap out of it and realize how truly shameful they have been.” President Obama reigned condescendingly over it all and when the deal was finally made, proudly declared it the “biggest annual spending cut in history.”
They all must have forgotten last December’s tax cuts, which alone added well over $700 billion to the national debt.
We’re still going in the wrong direction. And if the partisan atmosphere in Congress is any indicator, we will be for the foreseeable future. A comprehensive approach to our budget woes must encompass not only cuts across a wide range of services, but also a hike in tax revenues. That may be a painful prescription, but it’s an inevitable one. Even the staunchest of conservatives would be hard pressed to find $1.5 trillion in tolerable spending cuts, let alone get them passed.
Several valid proposals for long-term deficit reduction are already on the table, but none have received serious consideration. Instead, Congress seems dedicated to passing hasty and often contradictory measures that satisfy key constituents. These days, the only valid reason to delay deficit reduction is economic recovery. But with production and employment on the rise, that reason is starting to fade.
President Obama is set to release his own budget proposal this coming week. Don’t hold your breath. No matter how strong or detailed his plan, he will face a real challenge eking any real support out of this deadlocked Congress. Last week’s skirmishes were only a prelude to the real battles to come.
A culture of conflict has swept over Capitol Hill and brought progress to a standstill. Soon, Congress will start the much-anticipated debate over our debt ceiling, and the prospects aren’t good. Here again, the result is inevitable: if the ceiling isn’t raised, the U.S. will catastrophically default in the not-too-distant future. Yet, both sides of the aisle are gearing up for a fight to the death over this fait accompli. If all goes well, Boehner and co. will be able to apply the pressure that finally forges a bipartisan vision for the future. Yet, it’s more likely that we’ll see another round of trivial squabbling and a temporary bargain: a band-aid measure. The infighting will continue — for at least another year and a half. Let’s just hope we all make it out in one piece.
Rory Marsh is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.