WASHINGTON – The Democrats in Congress and Republican President Donald Trump agree practically on nothing. Therefore, it is impossible to think of any major piece of legislation that can be passed between now and November 2020, when Americans will go the polls to pick a new President and a new Congress and new political majorities may be formed.
Sharply divided government
Since the Democratic control the House of Representatives, while the Republicans control the Senate and the White House, and considering the increasingly toxic political climate that makes compromise impossible, we have not just a divided government. We have a sharply divided government. So, do not hold your breath. No significant legislative actions between now and the next presidential and congressional elections in November 2020.
The spending deal
That said, there is a huge exception –and a very shameful one—in this political stalemate. And that is federal spending. Very recently, and very quietly, Republicans and Democrats hammered a major spending deal. There was no fight. No public posturing to defend this plan and attack the other side spending priorities. No grandstanding.
Very quietly the two arch enemies came rather quickly to a spending agreement. How so? Because they decided to increase spending across the board. Essentially, the Republicans got some more money for Defense. The Democrats got a bit of this and that in other areas of non-defense discretionary spending.
In case you were wondering, these increases will not be offset by spending cuts in other areas. This means that a large and growing US Federal Budget deficit, for decades now a structural feature of our public finances, will become much bigger much sooner than expected. Think of a $ 1 trillion billion deficit, (that is 1 thousand billion), year after year, unless something rather drastic is done.
This is a colossal figure. In simple language, this means that Uncle Sam every year spends more money –a lot more– than it takes in via tax revenues. In principle, overspending could be justifiable; but only when the government goes into overdrive with extraordinary fiscal stimulus in order to counter a major recession, like the most dreadful one we had beginning in 2008. Borrowing money could also make sense if the funds are to be invested in important capital projects, (new highways, ports or airports, for instance), that would improve our national infrastructure networks this way benefiting the economy. But we are not doing any of this. Indeed, this is not money borrowed for stimulus or for financing needed infrastructure. This is mostly money to be used to finance current spending. In other words, as a nation, we are living beyond our means, while we obviously think that we can keep our lifestyle by borrowing the difference –indefinitely.
By the way, everybody in Washington who is even remotely familiar with federal spending trends knows this. But the fact is that nobody seems to care. The sad and worrisome conclusion is that chronic overspending is now accepted by most Washington policy makers –both left and right– as the normal way to run the government of America, a major modern country which used to be run according to established principles of fiscal balance. Namely: in the long run you should not spend more money than you can raise through taxation. By the same token, if you have accumulated a large public debt, you must change tax and spending patterns in order to return to a healthy balance.
The roots of the US deficit and debt
Now, as to the actual roots of this systemic overspending, obviously they are not in the deal just struck by the two political parties. This recent deal just made a bad situation a lot worse.
The roots of US overspending are in the incremental but steady growth of large entitlement program that cannot possibly be funded as they are currently structured, unless taxes will be substantially increased and/or benefits reduced.
No, US overspending is not about “fraud, waste and abuse”. It is not about too much foreign aid, as many believe. It is mostly rooted in our big federal entitlement programs. Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps and other related programs, absorb about 2/3 (yes, that is a lot more than half!) of the US total federal budget, currently at $ 4.7 trillion (again: a trillion is 1,000 billion).
Good programs designed in a different era
The problem about these programs (most of them) aimed at providing for our senior citizens is that they were designed in another era, (Social Security goes back to FDR in the 1930s, Medicare goes back to the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson was president).
Clearly that was a different America, with completely different demographics. The programs as designed were solvent and meant to be self-sustaining. But this is no longer the case. The way the system works, the payroll taxes paid by current workers and their employers go directly to fund the benefits for the retirees. The problem is that the US population is slowly shrinking, which means fewer active people are supporting the benefit for a larger number of retirees, while health care costs for seniors have been increasing. Simply stated, the programs are no longer self-sustaining.
Kicking the can down the road
This trend of the growing cost of entitlements, year after year, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the federal budget, is not news. This has been going on for decades. But lawmakers and presidents of both parties simply ignored the problem, in large measure because they believe you cannot tell the truth to the American voters. Even talking about serious reforms that would modify or potentially decrease benefits to retirees is deemed to be political suicide in Washington.
The Debt Commission recommendations went nowhere
For example, back in 2010, then President Barack Obama created a bipartisan commission to review federal spending and make recommendations on ways to reduce deficits in the future. It became known as “The Debt Commission”. The two co-chairmen were Erskine Bowles (Democrat), and Alan Simpson (Republican). These two elder statesmen took the job very seriously, without any partisan animosities. This was no Washington wishy-washy anodyne process marked by generalities and obfuscations. Indeed, their 59-page report was entitled “The Moment of Truth”. It included actionable plans to reform entitlements, while also raising taxes; so that these key programs providing needed benefits to millions of American retirees would remain solvent and available to all beneficiaries, now and in the future, without bankrupting the federal government.
Well, nothing, absolutely nothing, happened after the report was issued. President Obama, just like all the other presidents before him, did not want to kill his chances of re-election in 2012 by becoming “The president who killed Social Security and Medicare”. So, notwithstanding the serious work done by these two elder statesmen whom I consider true American patriots, no action to reform entitlements, defense spending and raise some taxes was undertaken under president Obama.
And, by the way, no action whatsoever under President Trump. Trump fully understands that his political is made up mostly of blue-collar white workers. And these are precisely the people who need these programs aimed at low income retirees the most.
How else could we save money?
Well, if we cannot reform costly entitlements, what else could be done to restrain public spending, this way reducing the deficits, and down the line slowing down the monstrous growth of the US national debt? Well, not much. “Oh come on, many would scream. We could start by cutting our gigantic defense budget!” Sure we could. But it would not solve our structural fiscal imbalance.
And by the way, believe or not, US defense spending is now close to a historic low as a percentage of GDP. Yes, while America spends more than $ 700 billion on the Pentagon, this large figure is only 3% of GDP. During the Cold War the US routinely spent close to 10% on the military. Which is to say that current defense spending levels are not an aberration.
While it may be possible to spend less or at least more wisely on defense, contrary to popular opinion, most of the Pentagon budget is not devoted to procuring new super expensive, unnecessary weapons. Most of the money goes to salaries (we must pay for an all-volunteer force), and operations and maintenance. This includes all that is needed to keep at least a percentage of a large force ready. Think of training, housing, food, deployments, fuel for an enormous fleet of vehicles, airplanes and vessels, and a lot more.
While we can and should have a sensible discussion about better ways to spend defense dollars, do not expect even significant savings to make a big difference. Indeed, our federal budget deficits are so huge that even if we abolished the Defense Department altogether, (an unlikely scenario), Uncle Sam would still be in the red.
Well, what about other areas of spending? Where else could we cut in order to achieve big savings? Well, no fat targets out there. As a percentage of total federal spending, transportation, energy, agriculture, commerce, and so on, claim relatively little money. Again, even if we abolished the Departments of Education or Energy, we would still run a large deficit. By the same token, cutting 10% or 15% here and there would impair basic functions without saving much money.
And do not forget another budget line item that keeps growing and cannot be cut. That is the interest on the existing national debt, now about 10% of total federal spending. To put it in perspective, this enormous number is about half of all defense spending.
Not on the verge of bankruptcy
To put all this in perspective, America right now is not –I repeat is not—on the verge of bankruptcy. Investors and foreign governments still eagerly buy our Treasury Bonds. They believe that America will be able to meet all its financial obligations.
Still, unless federal spending is seriously reformed –and by that I mean mostly a serious revision of our key entitlement programs, via a bipartisan agreement– we are definitely headed towards bankruptcy.
More money for everybody
If not today, pretty soon something drastic will have to be done. Either we cut spending, (remember: the fat target is entitlement reform), or we raise taxes, or a combination of both. But, right now, we are going in exactly the opposite direction.
With no public debate, and in a completely irresponsible fashion, our national leaders, in both parties, one year before the 2020 elections have decided that they want to tell voters that the free money party is still on. “Cheer up everybody! More spending, therefore more goodies for everyone: Mid-West farmers and Boeing”.
Deficits do not matter?
One last note. While our elected leaders act myopically to pursue the immediate goals of currying favors with the voters ahead of a major national election, at least some academics have come up with the bizarre “theory” that –guess what— in America federal deficits do not matter. When you have a country like the US that can borrow in its own currency, assuming tame inflation, large deficits are not an issue. According to these economists, Washington can just keep borrowing and borrowing and nothing bad will even happen. There are no limits. Apparently, our growing national debt (the cumulative result of chronic annual deficits) does not have to be paid back. Got that?
I would say that if this preposterous idea is accepted as a sound foundation for managing our public finances, then we truly deserve to go bankrupt.