All across America, families are balancing their budgets and even paying off debt. Since the financial panic of 2008, personal debt has fallen as Americans tighten their belts and pay back loans. Some, unfortunately, had to declare bankruptcy because their debts got too big. Washington cannot declare bankruptcy; it must instead follow the example of millions of Americans and cut spending to live within its means.
Most state governments, likewise, have managed to balance their budgets, even during these hard times. A few states, notably California and Illinois, continue to follow the federal government’s profligate example. A few raised taxes to get their fiscal houses in order, but most simply reduced spending. Several very large states with financial challenges, like Texas and Florida, balanced their budgets without any income tax at all by reducing spending. They are showing the way.
Washington could use the guidance. President Obama promised to cut the annual deficit in half in his first term. Instead, his budgets include near-trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. Unlike most state governments, and unlike America’s families, President Obama has to this point refused to do the serious work of cutting spending.
Incredibly, the “fiscal cliff” deal actually increased spending on net by $47 billion, while simultaneously letting 13 new or higher taxes take effect. The President also called for a “balanced” approach. So far he’s 0 for 2—no halving the deficit and no balance.
The next opportunity to focus Washington’s attention is the debt ceiling, which we hit last month. Treasury is now using some extraordinary tools to keep paying bills, but this likely won’t last beyond February. So something has to happen. But what should happen?
Would you give your spendthrift teenager a higher limit on his credit card if he did not have a plan to live within his means? No way! Instead of helping, you’d be giving that irresponsible teen more borrowed money to spend, making his situation worse.
The same principle applies to our nation’s credit card, which boys and girls of tomorrow will have to pay off. Increasing the debt limit without a credible path to balancing the budget puts off needed spending discipline and pushes us toward national ruin.
A truly balanced plan would lead to a balanced budget. The debt ceiling—if not raised—would force the federal government to operate on a balanced budget overnight. This approach could lead to unorganized cuts as the executive branch decided which bills to pay and not to pay, which of course is not ideal. (Congress could help by passing a prioritization bill in case we need it). Under a new law, or even without one, the Treasury would undoubtedly have enough money to pay our interest expense, avoiding a default on our debt.
Increasing the debt ceiling without reforms would be an unfortunate step toward a Greece-like meltdown at some point. Thankfully, the debt ceiling debate gives Washington policymakers a chance to get to much happier outcome: a balanced budget over time.
While our debt situation is dire, to this point our federal government has been able to use deficit financing because, as bad as things are here, they are better and more stable than in many parts of the world. It also helps in marketing our debt that the Federal Reserve is buying so much in a largely fruitless attempt to stimulate the economy. Regardless, we have a short window of opportunity to get our house in order before credit markets demand severe austerity.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today.” That’s why Congress should not raise the debt ceiling unless it includes immediate reforms today that put us on a sure path to balance, keep us in balance over time, provide for the common defense—and do not raise taxes.
There are a number of ways the budget could be balanced in short order. The Heritage Foundation put forward a plan that achieves balance in less than 10 years. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) sponsored that plan in a budget debate last year that also included plans from Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), both of which led to balance. None of them raised taxes. The House-passed Paul Ryan (R-WI) budget led to balance much later, but at least it was on the right path.
In contrast, liberals in Congress and the executive branch have not produced a single budget blueprint that balances within 10 years—or ever. For a President who likes to talk about a “balanced approach,” none of his proposals achieves the most important balance: spending only what you take in in revenue. That’s real balance.
Conservatives in the House and Senate are right to not raise the debt ceiling unless it includes reforms that put us on a path to balance within 10 years and keep us balanced. To do anything else would be abetting Washington’s massive overspending habit.
Derrick Morgan is vice president for domestic and economic policy at The Heritage Foundation.