Now that Congress has, in imperfect form and only under threat of a shutdown, settled on a short-term measure to continue to fund the government, lawmakers soon can turn their attention to more important work — the budget for 2012.
On the table so far are two options: one from President Barack Obama that nibbles around the edge’s of the country’s growing fiscal problems; the other from Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, that remakes government under the premise that government spending, especially on entitlement programs, must be slashed.
Of course, there is a third way, but to take it, lawmakers must show more discipline and willingness to work together than they did in the recent budget fiasco.
In recent years, budget debates have become more about scoring political points than solving real problems. The federal government was allowed to slip within minutes of a shutdown Friday night, for example, as Republicans and Democrats played a game of chicken while trying to assess which party would bear more of the blame if government services weren’t available this week.
Also, a major stumbling block to an agreement had nothing to do with dollars and cents, but rather was about access to abortion. In the end, leaders of both parties agreed late Friday night to a one-week funding measure while the details of a spending plan through June 30 are completed.
As Sen. Olympia Snowe said in a statement shortly before midnight Friday: “Running up to the brink of a shutdown is as inexcusable as it is dysfunctional. Having to approve another short-term, stop gap measure at the last hour is no way to run a government. Taxpayers expect more and they deserve more.”
The unanswered question is whether the taxpayers will get what they deserve in the negotiations for the 2012 budget and beyond.
So far, things don’t look promising.
While President Obama was right to appoint a commission to look for ways to reduce the ever-growing federal deficit, he should listen to it. His spending plan largely ignores the growing pressure that entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security are placing on the U.S. Treasury. Both can be fixed without huge cuts to benefits, but the sooner action is taken, the less drastic changes will need to be.
On the other hand, Rep. Ryan’s proposal looks at only one side of the federal ledger — spending. While there is a strong need to reduce federal spending, the revenue side of the ledger — i.e. taxes — should not be ignored. For example, the federal government forgoes more than $1 trillion a year in revenue because of tax breaks for specific groups of taxpayers. Further, the tax cuts enacting during the Bush administration have significantly worsened the deficit.
The middle ground — reducing government spending and eliminating costly tax breaks — carries significant political risks for both parties. But it is the only responsible way forward.