Americans deserve the truth about the U.S. budget crisis

David Meyers Former White House Staffer
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Americans are clamoring for honesty and action from their leaders. So it has been dispiriting to see the reaction from Democrats and Republicans to our nation’s grim financial outlook.

In Fiscal Year 2010, the U.S. government took in $2.2 trillion in revenue and spent $3.5 trillion. Every American understands that if we continue on this path, it’s only a matter of time before we go bankrupt and lose our status as the world’s most affluent and powerful country.

Over the past few years, American families have been making the tough choices necessary to live within their means. And they expect the federal government to do the same. But all they are getting is platitudes from politicians of every party.

Democrats put out budgets that don’t seriously address our nation’s fiscal crisis, while Republicans offer generalities about cutting spending without any specific, serious proposals that would get to the heart of the problem. Republicans use the threat of tax increases as a bogeyman while Democrats claim that Republicans want to end Medicare and Social Security.

The truth is that we either need to drastically cut spending (far beyond what almost any politician in Washington is calling for) or increase revenues.

Almost all of the spending cuts being proposed by President Obama and Congress are discretionary programs, which account for a small portion of our budget. In order to get America back in the black, we need to turn to the “sacred cows” of American politics: entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, defense spending, and domestic programs such as education, housing and urban development, and health and human services.

Many Americans want these programs to continue, and many of them have merit. But we cannot sustain them without increasing revenues, which is a problem since Americans don’t want tax increases either.

But instead of telling the American people that our current way of life is unsustainable, Republicans call for small-ball spending cuts and Democrats call for imaginary savings and small-ball tax increases. Neither of these approaches will have a serious impact on our nation’s financial health.

Politicians say these proposals are “just a start,” but that is not convincing. Even if we cut entire federal departments such as the EPA and the Departments of Education and Labor, we would still be spending more than we take in. And everyone knows these kinds of cuts will never happen.

So what’s the answer? Serious, specific plans to make larger reductions in entitlement spending, discretionary spending, and military spending. And if this still isn’t good enough, we might have to find new sources of revenue that won’t harm economic growth.

But instead, we get more and more platitudes and false promises. Why? Politicians think if they tell Americans the truth, they’ll be voted out of office. The opposite is true. Unless politicians start telling the truth and demonstrating real courage and leadership, they’ll find themselves out of a job.

The American people don’t need to be patronized or lied to. They understand the choices will be hard, and that we will all have to sacrifice. They can handle the truth, and they are desperate for leaders who will give it to them. Politicians who don’t trust the American people don’t deserve the trust of the American people.

David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.