The President and those running to replace him ignore the nation’s $23 trillion in national debt; $18 trillion of which was incurred by the last three presidents. The President’s proposed 2021 fiscal year budget is $4.8 trillion and anticipated revenues are $3.64 trillion, adding another $1.2 trillion to the deficit. Every person living in the U.S. owes $70,043, as their share of the debt. This is a staggering amount for an ordinary worker.
Debt can be reduced in several ways – cut spending, raise taxes, inflate it away or default. Since paying it off is unlikely and the other options pose great risk, future generations face difficult options for dealing with it.
We must all keep in mind that complex societies collapse. Massively indebted societies collapse. Societies with their militaries deployed throughout the world collapse. Highly regulated societies collapse. We are all these combined, contentedly sitting on a bubble of debt, unable to address the serious risks it poses. We delude ourselves that collapse can’t happen here. It has happened to every major empire in the history of the world, and it will happen here unless the risks from debt are addressed.
As with all collapses, societies can live with risk for decades. At some point however, if not addressed, risk turns into disaster; society slips into the abyss. Once in the abyss, it can take centuries to reemerge as chaos rules.
To address our national debt, everything must be considered: taxes, spending, sale of assets, elimination of overreaching laws and regulations, and transferring to states the programs they can implement better than the federal government. These dramatic options may exceed the courage of today’s politicians. But there are smaller steps that could start the process of reducing debt and government.
Action: A Few Small Steps to Make a Big Difference
1. Congress should not fund unauthorized laws. Many laws are authorized for a few years at a time. At expiration, Congress is to review how the law works to determine if it needs to be reauthorized, modified or repealed. Congress fails to undertake this process when it wraps all funding into an Omnibus appropriation or Continuing Resolutions. If Congress does not have the concern to review the workability of these laws, it should let them lapse. In the FY 2019 appropriations, Congress funded 971 expired laws at a cost of $307 billion.
2. Congress should enact a ban on government gifts to corporations. A prior article outlined tens of billions of dollars in government gifts to corporations. It proposed that elected officials serve as a fiduciary of public money and promise not to give, grant, or loan public funds or extend the credit of the public to any private corporation, association, or private undertakings.
3. Re-constitute the Joint Committee on Reduction of Non-Essential Federal Expenditures, which existed from 1941 to 1974. This committee was established after World War II to recommend ways to reduce a massive federal budget. Its goal was to identify non-essential spending. While the committee was only a study committee, requiring its recommendations be submitted to authorizing and appropriation committees, it had a major impact on budgeting in government. With the inability of Congress to control spending or the states to force a Balanced Budget amendment to the Constitution, an alternative would be to create a similar committee to make recommendations to Congress, but require its recommendations be voted on by Congress. This process creates accountability.
4. Enact a Base Realignment and Closure Commission (“BRAC”) that applies to general appropriations. Due to political pressure to locate the military in numerous congressional districts, the U.S. constructed an excess of military bases but was unable to close unneeded bases. To address the situation, Congress established BRAC; giving the Commission power to identify unnecessary bases and to send the recommendations to Congress. The key to BRAC’s recommendations to Congress is that they became law unless Congress passed a Resolution of Disapproval and the President signed it. Using the BRAC structure, Congress could apply the same concept to all recommended reductions as a means of reducing political support for unneeded programs.
Establish a Budget & Waste Reduction Director in every agency to identify unnecessary expenditures. Federal agencies have recycling and permit streamlining directors to help implementation of certain laws. Due to massive budget deficits, there should be a similar position to identify ways an agency can eliminate unneeded programs. The person should report directly to the head of the agency. All reports must be addressed by the head of the agency and reasons for “No Action” must be justified. Mandate each director to recommend a 10% reduction in expenditures. Give the director a big bonus for success.
The above are easy actions to get the debt reduction process started. After the initial phase, more stringent mechanisms can be debated, like firm spending caps, balanced budget amendments, and reducing appropriations through normal legislative processes. The larger reforms will require courage but the nation is not at that point. Until then, we need small reforms by our elected cowardly lions.
There is never a right time to start reducing the national debt; there is only now!