Shattering the Debt Ceiling – Get Back to Budgeting

US_Public_Debt_Ceiling_1981-2010The nation is watching – some in angst, others with displeasure – as Congress and the President prepare for another power struggle over the debt ceiling. While our elected officials bicker over their ideologies, in the middle are the hard-working public servants hanging on the center of the rope that gets pulled left to right.

Our county is in debt – there’s hardly an argument about that. But like we do with our personal checkbooks and income, we need a budget that is realistic to our incomes and offers us some savings. In all, we need a practical and effective response for addressing the growing debt.

This summer, ASPA in partnership with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) launched the Memos to National Leaders series. This series highlighted nine memos from experts to the President and Congress to address key issues facing the country. Timely and relevant, the first memo discussed budget reform and “Strengthening the Federal Budget Process.”

The memo, written by fiscal and budget experts Steve Redburn, Phil Joyce, Roy Meyers and Paul Posner, was bold in making recommendations that are practical and implementable. The authors admit the only hard part is gathering the political will to do it.

At this inopportune time, the federal government’s budget process has virtually seized up. Routine decisions on annual discretionary spending are usually late, causing uncertainty and disruption. The largest parts of the budget, including revenue policy and entitlements, are on autopilot. Major decisions to reform the tax code and adjust spending priorities are blocked or deferred. Even if the familiar budget process were working smoothly, however, it would not be up to the tasks now facing us. The nation needs a new approach that is more far-sighted and strategic, more focused and disciplined.

The recommendations include: calling for a joint resolution that identifies medium and long-term savings for debt and savings; consolidating Congressional committees and raising the profile of the budget by requiring the president to make a fall address.  The recommendations seem simple enough but most have never even been attempted by our elected leaders, but the time is ripe to try something new.

As we prepare for another debate on the U.S. debt ceiling, the authors, in the latest iteration of their memo recommend eliminating the debt ceiling. In an op-ed piece published by the Baltimore Sun, Joyce and Meyers explain why.

The federal budget has been in deficit for 45 of the past 50 years. Some of these deficits have been worthwhile, as means to stimulate the economy during recessions and to finance investments. But deficits also result from demanding more government benefits and services than we are willing to pay for with taxes. The debt ceiling is a useless tool for controlling those demands, because its “limit” comes into effect far too late. Worse is the fact that the debt ceiling enables hypocrisy — for many legislators who oppose raising it previously approved spending in excess of revenues they were willing to raise. They claim that the debt limit is necessary to force themselves to reduce the debt when they had already had the power to do so in the regular legislative process.

The political posturing that has surrounded the debt ceiling has not benefited citizens. Experts like Myers, Joyce and others suggest that real work is done to address the budget problems facing the country.

… the first step of a more sensible process would be — to borrow a phrase — to “repeal and replace” the debt ceiling. The replacement would first ask Congress and the president to set reasonable targets for debt reduction over a multi-year period so that the debt would reach a sustainable level.

As the authors point out “then our elected officials would have to do the hard work of budgeting: deciding what specific spending is unaffordable and what taxes must be borne by the American people.” Isn’t that what we all do in our homes?

Admittedly, there’s a more political side to this debate that we won’t engage here. Rather, we want to encourage our elected leaders to listen to the experts – NOT their own voices.  Just like you sit down with your spouse, children and significant other to plan your budget, we expect our leaders to gather around the table and make decisions that are in our best interests.

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5 thoughts on “Shattering the Debt Ceiling – Get Back to Budgeting

  1. Great… So now the government is shut-down and all the employees are on a free vacation, so the taxpayers pay for employees who are doing nothing. This country is so messed up. Everybody wants everything, but wants to do nothing!

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