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FEULNER: Sapping our self-reliance
Sometimes a snapshot tells an entire story. Take one of the signs at last year's Tea Party rally in Washington: "Grandma's not shovel-ready." That summed up the anti-Obamacare, pro-smaller government movement in a single image.
Something similar happened recently when Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, who isn't seeking re-election, temporarily held up a $10 billion spending bill that was to extend temporary unemployment benefits, make Medicare payments to doctors and provide satellite TV for rural Americans.
Many on the left painted Mr. Bunning as a cranky man who wanted to leave workers unemployed, without access to a doctor and with nothing but snow on their big-screen TVs. Yet his point was important. Congress, after all, passed a "pay-go" law this year, saying that any new federal spending had to be offset by eliminating an equal amount elsewhere in the budget.
But when it came time to pass the latest $10 billion extension, lawmakers simply labeled it "emergency spending" and added it to the deficit, ignoring their legal duty to offset the new spending. This is absurd. If Congress can't find $10 billion to trim to comply with its own law, can we really expect them to make difficult budget decisions in the years and decades ahead?
Spending is out of control. The federal budget for 2010 calls for $3.5 trillion in spending, up from $2.0 trillion in 2002. There's no way every dollar of that is absolutely necessary and intelligently spent. But such big spending has encouraged Americans to depend more and more on government - and for things a lot more important than television.
How overwhelming is that dependence? How much have government programs squeezed out the social obligations and services once carried out by community groups, family networks, and even local governments? That's the question the Index of Dependence on Government, just published by the Heritage Foundation, aims to answer.
Consider the "Big Three" entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These mandatory spending programs are on autopilot. Lawmakers never vote on how much to spend on them, yet the costs climb every year. Even worse, they have "first call" on federal spending. So as they grow, they'll automatically pull money from things that should be national priorities, such as defense spending. Unless Congress reforms entitlements, they could eventually represent virtually all federal spending.
"Over the next 25 years, more than 75 million [baby] boomers will begin collecting Social Security checks, drawing down Medicare benefits, and relying on long-term care under Medicaid," the Index authors point out. "No event will financially challenge these important programs over the next two decades more than this shift of the largest generation ever into retirement."
How could Congress address this problem? "The solution is to turn these programs into 30-year budgeted programs, subjecting the budgets to debate every five years," the authors write. That would force lawmakers to make difficult choices, instead of leaving problems for future generations to solve.
Another problem highlighted by the index: Fewer people are paying taxes. Roughly one in five filers paid no taxes in 1980. Today, it's one in three. More and more Americans are pocketing "free" government benefits.
One simple, fair fix would be a flat tax with a low rate. The total amount paid could remain the same, but more people would be contributing. When they had skin in the game, they'd be eager to depend less on government.
To make good on all our government promises would cost $56.4 trillion, or $184,000 per American citizen. That's a mortgage our children and grandchildren will be expected to pay - without getting to live in the house.
It's time to restore fiscal sanity. Let's get America off the dole.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.
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