"The bottom line remains the same as it was last year,” Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf told reporters Sept. 17, when the CBO released its latest Long-Term Budget Outlook. The national debt is $17 trillion and counting but not for much longer, Elmendorf said, because “the federal budget is on a course that cannot be sustained indefinitely.”
Congress knows it must get a handle on America's debt problem, but actually doing it is another matter. Individuals work their way out of debt all the time; governments, especially republics, almost never do so apart from defaulting, collapsing, inflating their currencies or some terrible combination of the three.
It would help if senators and representatives reflected deeply on financial expert Dave Ramsey’s “6 Reasons People Stay In Debt” and applied them to Congress. As a public service, here’s a quick summary of how Congress should adjust its behavior:
First, Congress must stop trying to “keep up appearances.” Yes, many countries in Europe have larger governments than the United States, with much more expansive cradle-to-grave safety nets. But while these welfare states may look nice from the outside, except for some very tiny Scandinavian countries, these European economies are not growing fast enough to support their government spending. They will implode before the U.S. does.
Second, Congress has shown it’s “unwilling to sacrifice” even the most simple extravagances. The Heritage Foundation’s Patrick Louis Knudsen has identified more than $42 billion in unnecessary, poorly run, and duplicative federal government programs. But try naming one program Congress has killed in the past decade. If Washington were a reality show, it would be called “Hoarders.”
Third, Congress fears change. There is a reason no one ever tackles Social Security reform, even though the program ran a $169 billion deficit in 2012 and is underfunded by $9.6 trillion for the foreseeable future.
Fourth, Congress is “addicted to stuff.” Whether it is clean energy subsidies on the left, crop subsidies on the right, or mortgage tax deductions for the middle class, congressmen in both parties are spendaholics for the voters back home.
Fifth, Congress “doesn’t know how” to get out of debt. Remember how Democrats claimed in 2010 that Obamacare would reduce health care spending and lower the debt. Right. A just-published Centers for Medicare and Medicaid report projects health care spending to increase to 19.9 percent of GDP by 2022, with CBO adding that Obamacare will be the driving force behind that massive increase in federal expenditures. According to CBO, the Obamacare exchange subsidies and Medicaid expansion are projected to account for 53 percent of the increase in health care spending through 2023.
Finally, Congress is lazy. The sad truth is that most senators and representatives would rather have a root canal than confront spending and debt. Cutting spending is hard. It is much easier to create new spending programs or pass out new tax credits. But this is why the upcoming debt-limit debate is crucial. It forces Congress to face reality before it gets worse. Voters should keep the pressure on Congress to cut spending, rein in debt and reform entitlements before the debt limit is raised one penny.