Just about everybody is a special interest.
That proverb, evoked by seasoned legislators at every level of government, recognizes that when the public demands more services, it’s going to cost more money — funding that constituents are typically reluctant to pay for. Whether it is farm subsidies, or education, or Medicare spending, or in Louisiana the popular TOPS tuition vouchers for college, the notion is that somebody else’s benefits should be cut to balance the budget.
In other words, not our program, somebody else’s.
That’s the underlying bad news in a deal struck by the Trump White House and congressional leaders raising federal spending by $320 million over two years, with very modest offsetting budget cuts of about $77 million. That puts off the largest potential confrontation, that of shutting down the government, until after the next presidential election.
And while those are big numbers, the huge number to keep in mind is $22 trillion.
That is the federal debt, which has gone up and up over the last two presidential administrations. At least former President Barack Obama had an excuse; he took power during a deep national recession, and cutting spending would probably have made the economy even worse. But as the economy rebounded, so did federal spending.
President Donald Trump — an easy-money developer his entire life — did not have that excuse. He cut taxes instead of fighting harder to restrain the spending impulses of Capitol Hill.
In a time of economic growth, when the nation — in this case, like an ordinary household — should have been paying down its debts, or at least getting closer to balancing the budget, debt has exploded.
“It appears that Congress and the president have just given up on their jobs,” said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
“The economy is great and able to accommodate changes,” she told The New York Times. “But we’re about to make things worse due to nothing other than the lack of political will.”
How does one cut the budget? Look at popular programs like Medicare and Medicaid, the latter recently expanded in Louisiana. Both programs are federally funded; the state’s match is small for the latter expansion.
Most Medicare users don’t understand that the average recipient gets much more in benefits from the U.S. Treasury than he pays in premiums. Private insurance is also subsidized, through the tax code, and most people aren’t aware of that.
There are similar challenges with fiscal restraint at the state level. Programs in Louisiana like the popular TOPS “scholarships” subsidize higher education, but those benefits basically substitute for payments that students and their families would probably make anyhow. But if you suggest trimming benefits, or making them real scholarships for superior academic performance, the cry is that you are denying opportunity.
The old Pogo comic strip said it pithily: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”