Budget Path: How Feds Can Avert the Fiscal Crisis: The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Proposes a Balanced Plan of Spending Cuts, Entitlement Changes, and Tax Reforms to Avoid the Looming Federal Debt Crisis

By Goldwein, Marc | The Public Manager, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Budget Path: How Feds Can Avert the Fiscal Crisis: The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Proposes a Balanced Plan of Spending Cuts, Entitlement Changes, and Tax Reforms to Avoid the Looming Federal Debt Crisis


Goldwein, Marc, The Public Manager


In the wake of the recent financial meltdown from which we are still recovering, the United States faces the prospect of yet another crisis--a federal debt crisis. Averting crisis will require tough choices and painful sacrifice, including those from federal workers. This crisis can be averted, however. And the sooner we act, the better. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform ("Fiscal Commission"), on which I served as associate director, has shown a way forward.

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Most Predictable Crisis in History

The United States currently faces what some commentators have referred to as "the most predictable crisis in history." As we have seen in a growing number of European countries, this sort of crisis can be every bit as harmful as a financial crisis, except that we'll have to respond by sharply cutting spending and increasing taxes, instead of the reverse. And no one will be able to offer the U.S. government a bailout.

Make no mistake: the United States is not immune from a debt crisis. We are already in debt to the tune of 65 percent of our economy, a level higher than any time since the Truman Administration. On our current path, that level will exceed 90 percent--a level many economists consider as the danger zone--by the end of this decade. In fact, if you account for state and local debt, we are nearly there already. At some point, our creditors will lose faith in our ability to repay our debt. No one can know for sure when we will reach this tipping point. But we do know that the bond markets are fickle and can turn on us fast.

And turn on us they will. Without a plan to control the growth of entitlement spending and make other tax and spending changes, our national debt will reach levels that no country could possibly sustain. The choice before us isn't whether (or not) to cut spending or whether (or not) to increase taxes. The choice is whether to act now on our own terms, or later when a crisis forces such action upon us.

Many experts have suggested that the political system will not be able to act before an actual crisis occurs. I don't accept this as an inevitability--not if our leaders can come together and support a bold but balanced plan of spending cuts, entitlement changes, and tax reforms. An ambitious plan to stabilize the debt can be enacted, and it can be done in a way that is comprehensive, progrowth, and protects those truly in need.

The Fiscal Commission proved that such a plan is possible, and its recommendations garnered the support of 11 out of 18 commissioners. This bipartisan superma-jority included five Democrats, five Republicans, and one Independent, ranging from Senator Dick Durbin on the left to Senator Tom Coburn on the right.

The commission's recommendations are now at the center of the deficit discussion in Washington. Whether or not these deliberations and negotiations lead some-where could literally be the difference between prosperity and ruin.

Fiscal Commission Recommendations

The recommendations reported by the Fiscal Commission in December 2010 would reduce the deficit by nearly $4 trillion through 2020, and put the debt on a stable and declining path through at least 2035.

The recommendations were quite comprehensive, hitting nearly every area of the budget. This approach was necessary not only to match the magnitude of the problem, but also to build a bipartisan coalition. No member of Congress would put his or her sacred cow on the chopping block without knowing that others would as well. And few members of the public are willing to accept higher taxes, lower benefits, or fewer government services unless it is in the spirit of shared sacrifice in which their fellow Americans are doing the same.

The commission's recommendations included five major parts:

#1| Discretionary Spending Caps

The commission called for discretionary spending caps, which would eventually bring spending back to real (inflation-adjusted) 2008 levels. …

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