The 112th Congress took the oath of office a few days ago with the clearest mandate from the American people in recent memory: Cut the size and cost of government — a lot.
It is a new year and we have a sizable group of new faces in Washington. Until proven otherwise, we should be optimistic about the opportunity we now have to pull the government and the nation back from the brink of bankruptcy. But let there be no confusion about the task. While any and all spending reductions are good, we must also face some truths that have been conveniently dismissed in past attempts to balance the government’s books.
First, it is fundamentally impossible to really reduce the cost of government without reducing what government does. “Rolling back” spending to 2008 levels, imposing salary and hiring freezes, cutting “discretionary spending” by 5, 10 or even 20% — all those things are good efforts and prudent immediate steps. However, if you do all those things without actually eliminating or reducing the countless things government does that we cannot afford, the result is that spending is simply deferred or juggled to get through the near-term crisis.
News reports have been full of debates about whether it is feasible to cut $100 billion, for example, from federal spending this year — as some Republicans have advocated. Even among committed, well-intentioned conservatives, we heard far too much equivocating and qualifying of that prospect.
Come on, folks. $100 billion? We can get to that number without breaking a sweat – if we just decide to do it. The government spends $25 billion a year maintaining vacant federal property. If it’s vacant, sell it, tear it down, or give it away, but stop spending the $25 billion. We are spending $10 billion a year on government travel. Mr. President, send a memo tomorrow directing everyone to cut their trips in half. I suspect few of us taxpayers would notice the difference, and there is $5 billion in savings right there. Tomorrow.
Remember all that stimulus money Congress appropriated? Guess what: $50 or $60 billion of it hasn’t been spent yet. What Congress has done, Congress can undo. So, perhaps Congress should simply repeal that unspent stimulus money. Now, before it’s gone.
There is another $10-$20 billion sitting around in government accounts that was appropriated two or three years ago, but has not yet been obligated. With a simple vote and a stroke of the president’s pen, those dollars could be rescinded. Today.
One hundred billion dollars in spending cuts this year? Heck, we just did it on this page — and we are talking days and weeks, not an entire year.
The point, of course, is that if Washington gets queasy about cutting $100 billion, we have a problem. We are today borrowing more than 40 cents of every dollar we spend, and we are spending trillions. Cutting back on plane tickets, vacant buildings and yes, even earmarks, isn’t going to do it. If anyone believes we can bring the budget back to reality without dealing with Medicare, Social Security, and defense, they are not facing the truths that Congress and the White House must face.
When Republicans took over Congress in the 1990’s, they did so with the right ideas and right intentions. But frankly, they blew it. While they certainly did some good things, when it came to fundamentally reducing what government does and how much it spends, they didn’t solve the problem; they became part of it.
That can’t happen this time around. The stakes are too high. Unlike the ‘90’s, we are looking at deficits and debt that truly threaten to consume the U.S. economy, and which represent the single greatest threat to our national security.
The good news is that, today, our “new” Congress has taken office with a mandate to cut government and spending that could not be clearer — or more urgent. If they were good enough politicians to get elected, they certainly should be good enough to understand that mandate and fulfill it.
So, let’s knock $100 billion out of the budget right now, and get to work on the other hundreds of billions in long term reductions that will truly put government back in its proper limited place and cost.
Gary Johnson is the honorary chairman of the OUR America Initiative (www.ouramericainitiative.com), a 501(c)(4) advocacy committee. He is also the former Republican Governor of New Mexico (1994-2002), and has been a consistent and outspoken advocate for efficient government and lowering taxes.