Stop reckless spending

America’s $13 trillion national debt did not appear out of thin air. This massive liability is the result of Washington’s refusal to keep spending in line with revenues. Since 1961, the federal government has run a deficit in every year but five. Four of those all-too-rare surpluses occurred from 1998 to 2001 under Republican control of Congress, the branch of government which decides these matters.

Lately, deficit spending has reached previously unimaginable levels. Last year’s red ink topped $1.4 trillion, more than tripling the previous record. The picture going forward looks just as horrific. Based on President Obama’s approved or requested spending levels, the Congressional Budget Office predicts deficits of $1.5 trillion this year and $1.3 trillion in 2011. From 2012 to 2020, it projects an average deficit of nearly 

$1 trillion every year. That’s equivalent to Congress passing a new TARP each year. Under these conditions, expect our national debt to top $20 trillion well before the end of this decade.

This is not an academic problem. Washington’s deficit spending is now affecting America’s economic psyche, leaving investors and job creators less confident about the future. America is undeniably on the path to bankruptcy. So how do we solve this crisis? The answer is actually quite simple. Stop the reckless spending.

There is no shortage of places to start. During the last two years, total federal spending increased by nearly 25 percent. Is it really too much to ask that non-defense discretionary spending by agencies like the Departments of Energy, Education, and Transportation go back to 2008 levels? Doing so would save up to $925 billion. Canceling unspent funds from the failed stimulus package yields another $266 billion. While we’re at it, let’s end the bailouts. Simply prohibiting new TARP bailouts and making Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac compete on a level playing field saves taxpayers $46 billion.

As much as anything else, we must change the culture in Washington. What if Congress’s default position was thriftiness instead of always looking for more and more ways to spend taxpayer money? The enhanced rescission authority sought by both Presidents Bush and Obama would force Congress to at least consider spending cuts proposed by the White House. Another option is to mandate consideration of quarterly rescission proposals introduced by leaders in each chamber.

Examples abound of programs now rendered redundant, duplicative or unnecessary. If every spending measure included an automatic sunset provision, the default option immediately becomes ending a program. Any program worthy of continued funding should easily garner enough support before its time expires.

Congress also needs a realistic definition of the word “emergency.” The pay-as-you-go rules enacted by Democrats about emergency spending are a total charade. No longer should Washington be allowed to add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit by labeling as an “emergency” spending that everyone sees coming a mile away for which there could be a logical plan.  

And then there is the $109 trillion gorilla in the room — the future liabilities of entitlement programs which already compose 60 percent of the federal budget. Simply increasing funding for Medicare at the rate of economic growth and Medicaid at the rate of inflation would help keep these programs solvent and save America from backbreaking debt. Far too many supposed leaders in Washington lack the political courage to even consider entitlement reform. That must change. You cannot talk about the debt and deficit crisis without addressing the skyrocketing costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Anyone who denies this is not serious about ensuring these programs will be around for future generations.

Finally, keeping deficits and debt in check over the long-term will require a commitment to balanced budgets. Many people talk about them, but only the Republican Study Committee has actually produced concrete proposals for the last two years. Relying on common sense ideas including many of those listed above, our budget would reach a surplus by 2019 without raising taxes. By that same time under President Obama’s vision, annual deficits would again exceed $1 trillion even as Americans face a much higher tax burden.

Bridging this gap will require a conscious and concerted effort. New tools that make thriftiness and saving Washington’s default setting can certainly help, but tools are worthless without the will to use them. Instead of passing the buck to a commission, Congress and the president could act today to reduce spending and lower the deficit. A lack of will, more than anything else, is what has to change.

Rep. Price is chairman of the Republican Study Committee.