Congress must show courage, address long-term financial stability

March 10, 2011 By    

As you read this, one of three things will have happened: Congressional Republicans and Democrats will have been able to agree on a funding bill for FY 2011 and a government shutdown will have been avoided; they will not have agreed and a government shutdown will have occurred and possibly been resolved; or the federal government is currently shut down.

But even if they were able to avoid a shutdown, a question remains: Did they address long-term financial stability?

Our funding and budgeting process focuses Congress on the short term, but our government’s long-term budget outlook is more important. In looking at deficits over the next five to 20 years, we need to examine what drives those figures. It’s what businesses do, and how voters need to start thinking.

If you believe the political rhetoric from any person or party, you would think funding for National Public Radio, aid to women and infant children, foreign aid or – dare I say it – low-income emergency heating assistance are driving our budget deficit. Along with these programs, funding for our nation’s entire discretionary programs make up only 18 percent of our annual spending, according to budget experts.

What is driving annual and long-term deficits is non-discretionary spending in the areas of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the funding of two wars. This is not news. The president’s own federal commission on the deficit has made this case, but obviously not enough for political party leaders to tackle the job.

If only our elected leaders would act like they were not worried about their re-election chances. There are a few leaders like this. Unfortunately, they are often governors who by law are required to balance their budget.

Recently, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said something rarely heard. During a speech in Washington, D.C., he called for an increase in the retirement age for Social Security to avert an insolvent program by 2037.

“There, I just said it! I’m still standing here, and I did not vaporize,” Christie joked. His point was that most elected officials are too timid to take on Social Security. “The old playbook says lie, deceive, obfuscate, make it to the next election,” he added. “[Leadership] has to be about doing big things and being courageous.”

Being courageous applies to the voters, too. Americans have to share the blame whenever we let our elected officials (and members of media) get away with shrill rhetoric and fear mongering. If we as citizens will not push our members of Congress to make the hard choices for the next 20 years in the areas of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, it won’t matter what discretionary programs they address now.

It is heartbreaking in America to know that any citizen might not be able to pay a heating bill, that a child might not have access to proper nutrition or that America won’t support a vaccination program that saves thousands of lives in a country very different from our own. But these discretionary, shorter-term funding debates – important as they are, and as political and partisan as they are – will return in the next annual budget and funding cycle.

They also cause a lot of cynicism and anger in the citizenry. Even if we zeroed out these and other discretionary programs, our deficit would remain. Our budget problems are structural, not discretionary. Next year we’d just have the same problems.

Unfortunately, it might take a real crisis for Americans to support political leaders who can make the hard decisions. The public needs to push our elected officials to walk deliberately toward each other on these serious issues. I fear many of the new conservative Republicans are willing to march head-on against the president, shut down the government, cause all manner of fear in the public and, worst of all, damage our economy in the short term.

What is concerning is that the political capital expended for these debates on discretionary programs should be used on the larger issues of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – the drivers of our budget deficit. If we cannot address our long-term obligations, we might not have the funds for discretionary programs anyway.

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