Don't Make a Federal Case out of Balancing the Budget

By Clarke, Kevin | U.S. Catholic, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Don't Make a Federal Case out of Balancing the Budget


Clarke, Kevin, U.S. Catholic


THESE DAYS IT SEEMS DEMOCRATS AND Republicans can't find much of anything they agree on. But in a rare display of bipartisanship last year--albeit one preceded by months of budget gridlock culminating in the mortifying spectacle of the multiple shutdown of the federal government--they did manage to grip and grin for the cameras on one issue: committing the United States federal government to a balanced budget by 2002. In fact, during the election season, representatives of both parties seemed to outdo each other in noisy outbursts of fiscal responsibility-ism.

Some would guess this is good news. After all, it's hard to imagine a business enterprise as complicated as, say, your neighborhood candy shop continuing to operate with the budgetary bon vivants the U.S. government has sustained over the last 17 years. Though the nation has maintained annual deficits through much of this century, the costly habit began to attract broader public attention during the Carter administration when it became a favorite campaign issue for then-candidate Ronald Reagan. Ironically the deficit didn't truly come into its epic, "Somebody call Guinness" form until the "trickle down" years of the Reagan and Bush administrations, when massive tax cuts were joined with breathtaking increases in defense spending to produce in 1992 a post-World War II deficit high of $290 billion.

Because of such inspired accounting procedures, debt servicing, that is the annual cost of paying interest on the national debt, will hover around $240 billion for years to come and has advanced to the top of the list of federal nondiscretionary spending--rivaled only by our $260 billion defense budget. That's $240 billion that the federal government must pay off the top before it builds another hospital, renovates one of New York's late 19th-century high schools, "reforms" another social program, or buys another billion-dollar B-2 bomber.

Annual deficits persist and now contribute to a total national debt that is fast approaching $6 trillion. As most taxpayers realize a trillion here, a trillion there--pretty soon you're talking about real money. It's no surprise that the notion of balancing the budget should offer such broad appeal to the American public. When you're mulling over your checking account or filling those empty moments outside the assessor's office calculating just how much your great-grandchildren's share of the national debt will be, it's hard to find fault with an idea that has such common sense appeal as balancing the budget. Deficit spending can't be a good thing, right? Everybody knows that you can't get away for too long spending more than you earn; there's not many banks out there that would let even the most loyal of customers kite their monthly utility checks.

Our worthy legislators were quick to sense some easy votes--er--the public mood, and the contemporary obsession with the balanced budget began. Even an idea as controversial (and wrongheaded) as making the balanced budget a permanent obligation under the Constitution has enjoyed support from both parties and a good segment of the voting public.

But before Americans start celebrating the new era of fiscal cooperation in Washington, they may want to take a few minutes and consider what kind of future the nation has committed itself to in our seven-year budget balancing act. They might ask: Why the rush now to balance the budget after years of deficit spending? Many economists do not share Washington's sense of urgency over the budget. In fact they fear that an overaggressive assault on the budget could have a calamitous effect on the American economy.

Are our political leaders making policy based on rational economics or election-year sloganeering? And, even if everyone accepts the desirability of a balanced budget, does the nation really have to achieve a balance in such a short period of time--regardless of the economic and social uncertainties that lie ahead? …

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