October 21, 2014

Failure Shouldn't Be An Option for Budget Conference Committee

In a new op-ed in the Billings Gazette, Paul Hansen, western states regional director for The Concord Coalition, says failure should not be considered an option for the congressional conference committee on the budget. The guest column can also be found here on the newspaper's website.

Guest opinion: House-Senate budget conference cannot fail

Budgetary gridlock in Washington has led to one crisis after another. It has weakened America’s economy, disgusted the public and damaged our international standing.

It has also left the nation’s major fiscal challenges largely untouched.

A comprehensive approach is still the best way to fix the debt. Failure should not be an option for the House-Senate conference committee now assigned to develop a budget plan to avert another government shutdown on Jan. 15.

America needs a budget — and it is lawmakers’ responsibility to write one. Ideally, it should not only fund the government for the new fiscal year — which began Oct. 1 — but curb the growth of federal debt and put the country on a more responsible long-term path.

The budget committee can start by dealing with the automatic spending cuts (“sequestration”) that were set in 2011.

Mindless sequestration

Sequestration symbolizes everything that has gone wrong with the budget process. It cuts the part of the budget that is least threatening to our fiscal future. The automatic cuts are ill-timed, putting immediate strain on a fragile economic recovery rather than gradually phasing in serious, longer-term deficit reduction.

These are also mindless, across-the-board cuts that are at odds with the whole concept of congressional priority-setting. Lawmakers’ failure to make serious choices hurts the military, the poor and our entire economy.

The budget conference committee should find a way to adjust the automatic cuts while maintaining the same long-term deficit reduction.

To really succeed, however, the panel must address health care spending and an inefficient, overly complex tax code. These are the key drivers of Washington’s projected deficits.

While there are deep political divisions over these two areas, there is also a surprising amount of consensus on possible reforms. It is widely acknowledged, for example, that substantial savings can be found by rewarding quality over quantity of health care.

Overhaul tax code

It is also generally acknowledged that the tax code needs an overhaul to scale back the $1 trillion annually allocated in “tax expenditures,” those special credits, deductions, exemptions and exclusions that essentially subsidize favored activities or industries.

Scaling back tax expenditures fits the agenda of both parties. In fact, both the House and Senate budgets call for such reductions, although both sides are reluctant to face down the special interests that support them.

Because most deductions are reserved for taxpayers who itemize, they are regressive and primarily benefit wealthier taxpayers. While some have legitimate social purposes, they could be better served at far lower cost through other means.

Since all Americans would enjoy the fruits of sound fiscal policy, only the very needy should be exempt from contributing to a sustainability plan. Those Americans who can more readily shoulder some of the burden should be asked to do so.

Narrowly targeted tax breaks or spending provisions for businesses or individuals do not belong in a deficit-reduction plan. Such political pork diverts resources from more pressing needs and increases public cynicism.

Nor should any generation be exempt from shouldering some responsibility for fiscal reform. Programs and benefits for senior citizens, for example, comprise more than one-third of total federal outlays. Exempting them from any reforms would place an even greater financial burden on our children and grandchildren.

Everything must be on the negotiating table. A credible plan to replace sequestration and curb the growth of the federal debt will fail without the bipartisan political will and compromise needed to put it into action.

It’s time for Congress to do their job.

Paul Hansen of Jackson, Wyo., is Western states regional director for the Concord Coalition.