I’d like the federal government to balance its budget. I’d like Social Security and Medicare to be reformed and made sustainable for future generations. I would also like an Oompa-Loompa.
But here on Earth, members of Congress need to make real choices, not simply draw up wish lists. Making wish lists is the job of think tank scholars (see paragraph 1). Members of Congress need to work to enact legislation that moves our country in the direction that reflects its core principles, and that requires recognizing that the way to solve problems is sometimes incremental.
The House is scheduled to vote Thursday on Speaker Boehner’s legislation to reduce federal spending and lift the debt ceiling to avoid default. If enacted into law, this legislation will be the first in modern history to couple a debt-limit increase with real spending constraint. It is not worthy of support just because failure would be worse. The proposal laid out by Boehner is a massive step toward desperately needed fiscal sanity. Moreover, it is the first such step after years of excessive spending growth. It is a clear reversal of direction by Congress and represents the belief of both Tea Party activists and Democrats in swing districts that Washington needs to spend less. Way less.
Many Republican members have declared that the bill does not go far enough. In fact, a dispassionate analysis of our entitlement programs does show that our budget woes are greater than the savings achieved by this plan. But that is irrelevant. Leadership in a democracy requires not finding the Wonka bar with the golden ticket, but rather proving the effectiveness of one’s ideas. And the simple truth is that no matter what, this debt-limit debate will be back again in 2013 (if not sooner). This means that if the speaker’s proposal is enacted, there will be an opportunity to observe its success. If the framework of spending cuts for debt-limit hikes works, by legislative, economic, and political standards, Congress could tighten the screws further in the next debt-limit fight and do it again and again until a balanced budget is achieved.
But such an opportunity will only be available if Republicans take the lead. One thing about House Democrats is clear: They do not share the commitment to reducing federal spending.
Lawmakers should see the speaker’s plan for what it is — an enforceable commitment to significantly reduce spending. If voters appreciate the value of the return to fiscal sanity, lawmakers will be able to further advance the agenda of limited government the next time this battle arises.
But if the House fails to pass the speaker’s proposal, lawmakers risk abdicating control of the process to less determined advocates. It’s time to recognize that golden tickets are few and far between outside of fiction, and in the real world we need to take the first step that the speaker is offering before it’s too late.
Alex Brill is a research fellow at American Enterprise Institute.