A resolution for Congress in 2020: Make better fiscal policy decisions

A resolution for Congress in 2020: Make better fiscal policy decisions
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Most New Years resolutions are not honored for very long, but here is one that would be good for our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to stick to. Stop short changing the future because of an unwillingness to make responsible fiscal choices. The past few years have been an abomination when it comes to responsible federal budgeting. Let us review this here.

When President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump signs bill averting shutdown after brief funding lapse Privacy, civil rights groups demand transparency from Amazon on election data breaches Facebook takes down Trump campaign ads tying refugees to coronavirus MORE entered office, the debt stood at a historically high $14 trillion, which is 76 percent of gross domestic product. Although he promised to pay off the debt in eight years, a preposterous objective to start with, what Trump has done is sign into law an increase of $4.7 trillion in the debt over the next decade. There was the reckless tax cut, which came with a nonsensical promise of paying for itself, that has predictably blown a hole in the budget. The tax cuts will add $2 trillion to the debt over a decade, or $3 trillion if expiring portions are made permanent.

This was then quickly followed by a spending bill that busted out of the sequester caps with even more in defense and discretionary spending than was requested, adding another $450 billion to the debt. Then last month, members of both parties passed an egregious new spending bill that not only broke the sequester caps, it failed to extend any caps at all going forward, leading to another $1.7 trillion in projected new debt from the spending increases and almost $500 billion from additional tax cuts.

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All the while, members of both parties in Congress have long ignored the pressing need to shore up both our Social Security and Medicare systems, which have made promises to future beneficiaries that they cannot keep. Despite regular warnings from the program trustees, no changes have been implemented to fix these critical programs. Kudos to Mitt Romney, Joe Manchin, John Larson, Mike Gallagher, Edward Case, and others who are actively working on the legislation to implement overdue changes.

We have arrived at an entirely predictable problem. We have trillion dollar deficits projected as far as the eye can see. Interest is the single fastest growing part of the budget. We are dangerously unprepared for the next recession, not to mention behind in building a functioning safety net with modern types of insurance for the technology economy, and the major pillars of the existing safety net have been heading toward insolvency.

Can our politicians please abide by the hippocratic oath to do no harm in 2020? We are projected to borrow almost $13 trillion over the next decade thanks to aging, health care costs that are too high, federal revenues that are too low, and more deficit financed legislation. We should ideally return to a sustainable path where we saved or ran budget surpluses when the economy was strong, as it is right now in its eleventh year of expansion, and borrowed in times of recession. Staying on the current path where the debt is growing faster than the economy is clearly unsustainable.

We already know the policy solutions. We need to raise revenues, control spending, and make Social Security and Medicare solvent. Specific ideas could include raising the retirement age, means testing benefits, enacting viable spending caps to parts or all of the budget, getting rid of many of the trillion dollar tax breaks, implementing a carbon tax, so many more options. The policy levers are not the difficult part of the equation here.

But our political system is in such disarray with virtually no cooperation, record levels of partisanship, and what seems to many to be a defining election, so passing the right solutions is highly unlikely to happen this year. At the very least, however, lawmakers should solidly promise their constituents to not make the situation worse by borrowing even more. For whichever priorities that lawmakers pursue in 2020, they should offset the costs. To help in that task, we have built an offsets bank with a number of policy options, and we will continue adding more throughout the year.

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The presidential candidates should make the same promise. It should be incumbent on all of our political leaders to support a plan designed to fix this alarming situation. At the very least, they should all pledge to not make it any worse, with those vying for the presidency leading the way. Our budget watch project will track the budget promises of the major candidates and how they would affect the national debt over the year.

These should be coupled with a resolution from voters as well. We need to stop rewarding policymakers who dole out debt financed goodies in an attempt to win our hearts and minds, and do so at the expense of our own children, and start to hold them accountable. Support those who exhibit the courage of their convictions and are willing to pay for their priorities, not those who pretend that none of this matters or that it can all be solved with magic. This is the year that we should all start acting like responsible adults and take all the necessary steps to get this country back on track.

Maya MacGuineas is president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington. You can follow her on Twitter @MayaMacGuineas.