Nobody can argue that Congress or recent presidents have been particularly serious about managing the nation’s finances responsibly. Excepting the fiscal bargain struck in 2013 that slapped caps on outlays, our nations’ leaders have shown themselves happy to cut taxes while jacking up spending.
So here we are, with federal debt surging toward $30 trillion and the Biden administration urging even more spending. Whether this profligacy will spark an ugly response from the bond market or some other calamity can be debated, but what is clear is that we are dumping a massive burden on our children and their children. Additionally, fiscal democracy — the capacity of the nation to allocate resources to an evolving set of problems — is eroding as more and more spending is locked into commitments made long ago.
The American public has enabled politicians’ poor stewardship. Voters are not clamoring for higher taxes or cuts to the entitlements, defense, or much of anything. Good luck finding a John Q. or Jane Q. Public who shows up at the poll to cast a vote against a candidate who votes for deficit spending.
It is a concerning situation, but there is hope that it can turn around. And believe it or not, the House of Representatives itself actually took a step to force itself to pay a bit more attention to the nation’s finances. Last week, the chamber passed a resolution requiring the budget committees in Congress to annually convene to consider the fiscal state of the union. Both the Secretary of the Treasury and the Comptroller General of the Government Accountability Office would have to present a cold, hard look at revenues, spending, and the rest.
For a number of years, I avoided stepping on a scale because I was about 90 pounds heavier than I am now. Eventually, I figured out that you can’t get a handle on things by ignoring them. Occasionally, you’ve got to step on that scale. That’s the ethic this bill embraces. It simply says that, if we’re going to get a handle on our long-term fiscal challenges and have an economy that works better for everyone, we’ve got to occasionally hear a clear statement of the nation’s financial realities from a non-partisan, unbiased source.
Reps. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) and Andy Barr (R-KY) pushed for adoption of the resolution that cleared the House. Now it is up to the Senate to act for the resolution to take effect. (President Joe Biden need not sign it.)
Certainly, convening an annual talk about the nation’s financial problem may look like thin gruel. But, this jaundiced take overlooks the fact that congressional committees play a big role in setting the national policy agenda. Committees also are a venue for forging cross-partisan alliances that can press for action by Congress as a whole.
Besides, as the old wisdom goes, the first step to solving a problem is to candidly admit the problem exists, and to do so in front of others. Should enough media and social influencers watch these annual meetings and raise hay, perhaps the nation itself can be roused to meet the challenge before it is too late.