Photo above: The Hertford Bridge in Oxford, England. Used by Permission. © Tom Ley 01302 782837

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Toothless Platitudes Won’t Solve Debt Crisis

James A. Davids
Assistant Professor of Government & Law, Regent University

I like Sen. Tom Coburn.  In 2007, after the electorate threw out his party’s majority in the Senate, Coburn said:  “I think [American voters were] wise to want change. The Republicans didn't do what they said they were going to do. They deserve the wrath of the voters."  Refreshing.  Coburn was and is a fearless opponent of congressional earmarks, bucking his own party members when they sought to benefit their state at the expense of the nation (Coburn was the Senator who blew the whistle on Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere”).  According to a 2007 GQ article, Senator Coburn wants the American public to know “how it works in Washington, how the machine keeps itself running, and the favors get traded, and the deals get struck, and the bridges to nowhere are going up every day. He wants you to know that the United States Congress simply cannot stop itself—that both parties are in on the fix, backing each other and looking the other way, and that in the spirit of bipartisan waste, they manage to blow $500 billion more than they collect in taxes every single year.” Ahh, the “good old days” when the federal deficit was only $500 billion a year!

Given his reputation as a fiscal hawk, I was not surprised when Sen. Coburn became a member of the Bowles-Simpson Debt Reduction Commission, nor was I surprised when Sen. Coburn continued this effort by becoming a member of the “Gang of Six.”  Given the pap that constitutes the Gang of Six proposal endorsed by the President yesterday, I see now why Coburn walked out of the Gang of Six weeks ago.

The Christian Science Monitor today reported on the elements of the Gang of Six proposal.  Some of these elements are a bill that cuts $500 billion in discretionary spending over 10 years (remember that in 2007 Congress overspent its revenue by the same amount in one year), a congressional pay freeze (unlike many employees today, Congressmen have had pay raises the last few years), the sale of “unused federal property” (don’t expect top dollar in this real estate market!), and “new discretionary spending caps through 2015.”

“Spending caps” sounds good, but Congress already tried this years ago and it failed. In 1985, because of rising deficits Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, legislation sponsored by Sens. Gramm, Rudman, and Hollings.  This legislation, popularly known as “Gramm-Rudman,” provided for automatic spending cuts of “non-exempt funds” if the budget failed to reach established targets.  Not surprisingly, in five years Congress failed to pass a budget that met the established targets, and because Congress had exempted a big portion of the budget, Gramm-Rudman required a 32% reduction in defense spending.  This was unacceptable, and therefore Congress scrapped Gramm-Rudman and enacted the current system which caps spending and requires Congress to identify and secure new revenues for new spending (the “pay-as-you-go” requirement).  We have all seen how well this has worked over the past five years.

The GQ article on Sen. Coburn makes the point that “the members of the United States Congress will spend your money just because they can. That they'll do it even when they can't.”

President Reagan when discussing a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union famously quipped: “Trust but verify.”  He never made a similar comment about Congress, perhaps because he found Congress less trustworthy on budget matters. 

The only way to save our public treasury and economic future for our children and grandchildren is to restrain our representatives.  Just like the Founders restrained government from interfering with citizens’ religious convictions, free speech, freedom of assembly, warrantless intrusions into our homes, right to counsel during criminal proceedings and all the other elements of our Bill of Rights, we need a constitutional restraint from government overspending.  We need the federal government to pay for its spending by raising revenue, suffering electoral consequences for either raising taxes or not spending enough money.  Just like the states and our households, the federal government must balance its budget, and the only way to hold the government accountable is a constitutional amendment with a provision giving taxpayers the standing to sue if the federal government’s budget is not balanced.

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