The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 9, 2008

Our View — Budget time bomb needs discussion

As federal spending continues to extend the size of the overdraft on the country’s checking account, the presidential candidates continue to offer very few real solutions or tough choices.

The issue has perhaps faded in the minds of voters with $4 per gallon gasoline, but the federal deficit, federal debt, trade debt and unrestrained spending are issues that will do much more damage to the economic security of the U.S. than gas prices.

As much as political leaders from both parties say they are concerned, there’s a good amount of sweeping this problem under the rug. For example, the recent report of the federal deficit reaching a near record $500 billion does not include spending for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after mid-2009. Adding that in would push the deficit up about $45 billion — almost 10 percent higher than the current “projection.”

The nonpartisan budget watchdog group The Concord Coalition says the deficit projection by the Office of Management and Budget also does not include the continuing cost, or loss of revenue to the treasury, of the change in the alternative minimum tax, usually pegged at $64 billion a year. The deficit projection also includes sharp cuts in defense spending that people in the know say are not realistic to pass in a time of war.

Even if projected deficits don’t bother us — though they should — the rate of new spending, and the procrastination to even get spending bills approved, is worrisome. The Concord Coalition says typically by mid-July, Congress has approved the majority of 12 appropriations bills for the 2009 budget year beginning in October. So far, Congress has not passed one budget bill.

While President Bush has proposed a 5.5 percent increase in discretionary federal spending to $992 billion for 2009, Congress has proposed a 6.7 percent increase.

And while Democrats can be given credit for reimposing “PAYGO” rules to spending when they took office in 2007, those rules that require new spending be offset by new taxes or cuts elsewhere are not as enforceable as they were when they were imposed in the 1990s, according to the coalition. The new rules do not require automatic spending cuts in entitlement programs if Congress does not come up with its own offsets. Unfortunately, Republicans continue to oppose any kind of PAYGO rules.

In a number of instances Congress has “waived” PAYGO rules to push through things such as the alternative minimum tax fix, which costs about $64 billion a year.

Federal budget problems faced by the next president will be the most challenging in history. Voters should demand presidential candidates come up with a real plan to be responsible stewards of taxpayer’s money.