Sometimes, seemingly intractable problems need to be addressed with ‘brute force.’ That is, you tell everyone to stop making excuses, and whack them ‘upside the head’ until they change their ways and remedy the situation. In the case of “addiction,” which is our operating premise here, it may be useful instead to begin lengthy analysis, in hopes of finding the ‘root causes’ of the substance abuse.
Other times, such as that before us, you heed the advice of Ronald Reagan, who said that the solutions to many of our worst problems are simple.
“There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.” Ronald Reagan
I propose addressing the federal problem here, and I’m going down the path advised by Reagan. To do so, let’s view the challenge at a personal level.
If our situation at home found us operating with sizable ‘budget deficits’ and growing, unmanageable personal debt, most of us would probably sit down and think through our circumstances. We’d take a look at our ‘revenues,’ our ‘expenditures,’ and the difference between the two. We’d face the reality that we can’t print money, that we can’t force our employers to increase our compensation to cover the ‘deficit,’ and that letting personal debt get out of control is a path to bankruptcy and worse.
Next, most of us, I hope, would take a look at how much we’re spending on primary necessities like food, shelter, clothing, transportation, medical care, and debt service. Then, how much we’re spending on discretionary items like entertainment, eating out, digital services and devices, etc. We could start by considering lowering our budget allocations for each in proportion to the size of our family deficit.
If we’re ‘overrunning’ by 15%, a starting point would be decreasing spending in each category by that much. We’d immediately run into problems, though, because things like utility costs, mortgage payments, insurance, and credit card obligations are more fixed than flexible, so some adult thinking and decision making would be required. We’d work at it until we found a total solution that fits within the boundary conditions we have to live with.
As simple and obvious as this might sound to most of us, it seems beyond the logical grasp of those in federal government, and even worse, horribly threatening to their standard operating styles and tight grip on their sinecures, whether elective or not.
Which is why I propose instituting a methodology that forces them to confront reality, harsh and inconvenient as that can be.
The Federal Government consists of three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. While I don’t know the exact figures, it’s safe to assume Judicial Branch expenditures are a drop in the proverbial bucket. Executive Branch expenditures are where the overwhelming majority occur. The President ‘owns’ this branch, and submits a budget proposal (in theory) each fiscal year right about this time. Congress takes this proposal on board and makes disposition of it, which is where pork is distributed and traded as the various appropriations bills are deliberated, ‘massaged,’ and voted upon, and then submitted to the President for approval.
In my experience, the concepts of deficits and national debt are virtually ignored in this process. These two items are left to pundits, wonks, and various academics to discuss, but without any serious consequence for the actual budget on the table. They are seen as abstractions to be pondered at seminars and in op-ed columns, rather than as crucial realities that should influence policy and require immediate and robust leadership intervention.
So, let’s take human weakness and politics out of the equation. Let’s enact a simple law that requires the President to include in his budget submission the following:
- The projected operating deficit for the coming fiscal year, and for such out-years as are shown in the budget.
- Pro-rated allocations of the operating deficit to the three branches, and within the Executive Branch, pro-rated allocations of the operating deficit to each of the Departments. (If nothing else, making this computation public would give some indication of each Department’s “fair share” of the deficit!)
- A deadline by which all responsible leaders, and the Cabinet, must meet, confer, and develop budget revisions that eliminate their individual deficits, resulting in a balanced budget. Their individual changes should be made public, along with revised total budget figures.
And then add to the law this provision applying to Legislative Branch adjudication of the President’s budget proposal:
- Require that Congress, via its Authorization and Appropriation Committees, both House and Senate, address and act upon the proposed changes to balance the budget for the coming fiscal year and the out-years detailed in the document.
These requirements, simply and “faithfully executed,” should obligate all responsible individuals and organizations to take ownership of the deficits and debt they are imposing upon the populace and the economy, and cause at least some journalists and media outlets to call upon them to answer for their decisions. To be clear, this means the President, the Cabinet Members/Department Heads (and direct reports,) and all relevant Legislative Branch leadership. No more passing off of such profound matters to obtuse ‘talking heads,’ or ‘that’s not the real issue’ type deflections.
Easier said than done, I suppose, but we’ve got to start somewhere! Refusals to enact such laws should in and of themselves be highly illuminating, if not incriminating.
This is a ‘simple,’ but not ‘easy’ approach. Immediate complications will arise. Some expenditures are more constrained and inflexible than others, while some are just the opposite. Fine; those responsible must be given a charge and a deadline by which they must negotiate and arrive at a consensus on how to solve the overall problem. A friend used to call for the pizza theory of management: lock everybody in a room, slide pizzas under the door, and tell them they won’t be let out until they have a solution.
The ‘simple’ reality is that we are never going to come to grips with our fiscal problems until we break things down to manageable targets and obligations, and hold ALL those responsible for these circumstances accountable to each other, and more importantly, the taxpayers. And we MUST solve this problem, or the unsustainable path we are on will bring the ‘American Experiment’ to a chaotic and inglorious end.
Part 1: Deficits, Debts, and Drug Addiction
Part III will propose changes in another troubling area.