Election Winners Must Come to Grips With Fiscal Challenges

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Congressional candidates have said little, if anything, about the federal government’s deteriorating finances. When the winners turn their attention to legislating, however, they will find that ignoring the problem did not make it go away.

The first budget they are charged with preparing, for Fiscal Year 2020, has a projected deficit of $1 trillion under current law.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The federal government is on track to spend $1 trillion more than it takes in next year. And from the men and women competing to control the next Congress, those who will be responsible under the U.S. Constitution for the appropriation of funds, the collection of taxes and the payment of debts … nary a word.

But there is always hope. The winners of Tuesday’s congressional elections — Democrats and Republicans alike — could realize the perils of doing nothing and come to grips with the nation’s escalating fiscal challenges.

If they do so, it could lay the groundwork for rising prosperity, long-term economic growth and a brighter future for our children.

If the lawmakers elected this week simply procrastinate on these challenges as Washington has done in the past, however, Americans can expect very difficult times ahead for themselves, their children and even subsequent generations.

The fundamental fiscal problems are well known and well documented: Rapidly rising government debt, interest payments that have become the fastest-growing item in the federal budget, the unsustainable paths for entitlement programs, and a faulty tax system that is producing far less revenue than should be expected under the current economic conditions.

If many of this year’s congressional candidates have serious plans to deal with these challenges, they have been awfully quiet about them.

Politicians in both major parties have focused more on costly new promises that could well require further government borrowing and still higher interest payments. Discussion of how these campaign-season proposals might be financed has been limited or non-existent.

In fact, much of this year’s campaign rhetoric has sent precisely the wrong message to the public, implying that cost was no object in financing tax cuts, more federal spending or both.

A related disappointment in the campaign is that there has been so little serious attention given to ways in which the country could boost its capacity for long-term growth. This should have included proposals, for example, to expand the U.S. workforce and foster increased productivity in the coming decade and beyond.

There’s plenty of evidence that broad fiscal responsibility reforms ought to be a central concern to the next Congress and President Trump over the next two years.

Last month the Treasury reported that the deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was nearly $779 billion, which was $113 billion higher than in the previous year.

Under current law, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has projected that the deficit will approach $1 trillion in this fiscal year and surpass that figure in the next four years.The longer-term picture, CBO warned last summer, is even worse.

In early June the trustees of Medicare and Social Security — like their predecessors — warned that these programs were not sustainable in their current forms. With health prices rising and thousands of Baby Boomers leaving the workforce every day, the government must spend more each year just to provide the same level of benefits.

At a minimum, the new Congress should commit itself to not digging the nation into an even deeper hole than it already is. Any new spending or tax cuts should be explicitly paid for through responsible budgeting, not simply put on the federal government’s credit card. The “pay as you go” principle should be strictly enforced.

On this, at least, there ought to be bipartisan agreement. But even that would still leave the federal budget — including the big entitlement programs — on an unsustainable course that is rapidly worsening.

Clearly much needs to be done. The election winners should put a high priority on reducing projected deficits, ensuring the tax system provides sufficient revenue to support such reductions, repairing the entitlement programs, and pursuing sound policies to promote long-term economic growth.   

It’s a tall order. The longer Washington procrastinates on such sweeping reforms, however, the greater the risks for our country, and the more difficult the solutions will become.

That’s particularly worth keeping in mind now, when the economy is strong. We should not let this opportunity to prepare a better future for the country go to waste.

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