On debt ceiling, taxpayers need grownups at the table

Although President Obama tried to paint a rosy picture about the declining annual budget deficit in his State of the Union address, the canvas is much bleaker for our government’s finances than he would admit. On February 7, the national debt will reach its statutorily defined limit. Or to put it in simpler terms, we’re about to hit the debt ceiling. Again. Yet, there is a path forward that avoids a dramatic political standoff.

With a bit of compromise, restraint, and bipartisanship, Congress and the president could turn this often rancorous process into a “win-win” situation for politicians and taxpayers alike. In fact, the debt ceiling ought to present an opportunity for the two parties to have an adult conversation about the nation’s fiscal mismanagement and the need for spending restraint.

ADVERTISEMENT
But first, negotiators need to come to terms with the problem. As Obama pointed out, the deficit has been reduced, which means our government is borrowing less than it has in recent years. Still, we continue to mire future generations in hundreds of billions of dollars of red ink. The Congressional Budget Office projects that after three years of modest deficit reduction, this trend will reverse in 2016. From that point on, deficits will grow as far as the eye can see. There is still much work to be done. Now is the perfect opportunity to begin.

It’s clear the debt limit will be raised – pretty much all the key stakeholders on Capitol Hill agree on that point.  The path forward is somewhat murkier. It might appear that there are only two choices at hand: either pass a “clean” increase in the borrowing limit without making any other changes to law, or attach somewhat less-related policy concessions to a debt hike – like modifications to the Affordable Care Act.

There is another way for Congress and the president to proceed. They should focus exclusively on the issue at hand: stemming the rapid rise of the national debt. This was Speaker Boehner’s (R-Ohio) approach in 2011. The so-called “Boehner Rule” sought a dollar in spending restraint for each dollar of debt increase. Those negotiations produced the imperfect, yet effective Budget Control Act of 2011. While today’s political circumstances have made achieving this level of fiscal discipline less likely, a dollar-for-dollar exchange remains a goal worth pursuing.

And this goal is only attainable if entitlements – the primary driver of our debt – are on the table. Many lawmakers are wary of trimming spending related to popular programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But tackling these problems doesn’t necessarily mean pursuing structural entitlement reform – an essential long-term policy goal, but one unlikely to be included in any debt ceiling deal.

In the near-term, there are several more modest reforms that could be enacted to significantly reduce deficits. Many of these have broad, bipartisan support.  For instance, there is strong support for creating additional means-testing measures for Medicare. In his most recent budget, President Obama proposed a system in which wealthy seniors contribute more for their premiums. Such a change could produce $50 billion in savings over 10 years.  Increasing Medicare co-pays and deductibles, another proposal offered by Obama in his budget, could save an additional $7 billion.

The entitlement savings shouldn’t end there. Many more options can be found in a joint report that my organization, National Taxpayers Union, authored with the progressive U.S. Public Interest Research Group. We found over a half trillion worth of spending cuts including $131.6 billion in entitlement pare- backs. If fiscally conservative and progressive organizations can agree on significant deficit reduction options, then even a highly polarized Congress has no excuse.

 More than a few seasoned pundits in this town believe that at the end of the day, the debt ceiling negotiations probably won’t lead to a serious conversation about our nation’s debt crisis. More likely, they say, it will either result in relatively uneventful vote whereby the nation’s most pressing issues are ignored in favor of political expediency. This scenario would be unfortunate. Meaningful deficit reduction is within the grasp of our elected officials.  They just need to set aside their differences, and home in on the debt problem.  That’s the adult conversation that taxpayers should demand of their leaders.

Arnold is vice president of the National Taxpayers Union.