In the midst of a lame-duck Congress and less than three weeks until the new year, there is a frenzy of commotion in Washington. The president’s emissary makes trips to Capitol Hill, leading lawmakers make trips to the White House, and all sides visit the Sunday shows to posture and lament the lack of progress on avoiding the “fiscal cliff.” Benjamin Franklin wisely opined, “Never confuse motion with action.” Poor Richard’s admonishment would be well-heeded by those looking for solutions to save the nation from the true underlying peril: our national debt.
For fiscal 2013, the cliff is approximately $502 billion, 80 percent of which are tax increases, while $65 billion are spending cuts. For comparison, the interest expense on our $16.3 trillion debt for fiscal 2012 was a whopping $359 billion.
Even if all of the cliff’s taxes and spending cuts come to fruition, the deficit still will add well more than a half-trillion dollars a year to the national debt for each of the next five years. Why? Because our government continues to spend and grow with little consideration that spending and revenues should balance.
Spending in Congress is a disease that afflicts both Democratic and Republican majorities. In President George W. Bush’s first term, outlays grew from $1.8 trillion to $2.2 trillion. By 2008, spending grew to $2.9 trillion. During President Obama’s first term, government spending has grown to an estimated $3.7 trillion, or 24.3 percent of gross domestic product. Over time, whether Democrats or Republicans have held control of one or both houses of Congress, both parties have proved they cannot pull the reins on spending.
If Washington is serious about eliminating annual deficits and our cascading debt, spending caps must be part of the solution. There is already bipartisan support for strict spending limits. In January 2010, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, and others introduced a proposal to impose binding limits on total defense and nondefense discretionary spending. Congress would be legally bound to set and adhere to a budget except in times of emergency, when 67 votes could waive the constraint. Unfortunately, that proposal, like others, was never given life. Even worse, since the time of the proposal’s introduction, the national debt has climbed another $4 trillion.
If Americans of any income level are required to pay $1 more in taxes as part of a grand fiscal-cliff-sequestration avoidance measure, there must be a guarantee that any new revenue will go toward debt relief and that Washington will change its spending ways. Americans do not want more taxes, but they will feel better about paying them if the money goes to paying down the debt and not growing government.
Unlike in the real world, there is no economic reality forcing Congress to reform. Spending caps will require such discipline and reignite something Congress severely neglects: real and thorough oversight of government programs to determine which should stay, which require reform and which should end.
For as much as Washington has mismanaged past budgets and revenue, the real danger in all of this is not new revenue. The danger is growing the size of government with new taxes and deficits as far as the eye can see. Don’t be fooled by all the motion to get a deal done on the fiscal cliff. Real action will be known when we implement a plan that pays down the debt.
George LeMieux, former Republican senator from Florida, is chairman of the board of the Gunster law firm.