As we close the books on 2011 here in Washington, D.C., it’s hard to shake the feeling of disappointment looking back on the many opportunities our leaders missed this year to address the serious fiscal challenges we face.
We continue to lurch toward the end of the year with a national debt of more than $15 trillion, and with no plan to cut that number down to size. And even though we’re in a hole, Congress won’t stop digging—the federal budget deficit in November was $139 billion. Remarkably, this was treated as good news, since it was smaller than last November’s deficit of $150 billion!
By the end of the year, neither President Obama nor Congress seemed to have much stomach for coming together to address these problems. The president spent the fall pitching tens of billions more in economic stimulus spending, although his last round of economic stimulus (nearly $800 billion) under-performed wildly.
Meanwhile, Congress has become increasingly dysfunctional; members seem to have given up on getting anything done in favor of looking ahead to a contentious 2012 election season.
Our leaders had opportunities throughout the year to address the challenges we face, but time and again, they dropped the ball.
Since the end of the year is a great time for looking back and making lists, here’s my review of the top five missed opportunities for government spending reform in 2011:
1. Budget? We don’t need no stinkin’ budget! The principal mechanism Congress has for setting national priorities is the federal budget process; in fact, passing a budget is one of the legislative body’s most important duties. But in 2011, as in 2010 and 2009, Congress once again failed to produce a federal budget toguide the government’s spending decisions—an unconscionable dereliction of duty.
2. Getting floored by the debt ceiling debate. A summer-long debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling offered an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to seriously assess the government’s spending trajectory and take action to set the nation on a more sustainable course. But after months of squabbling, a perfectly unsatisfactory compromise emerged to raise the debt ceiling, while punting tough spending reform decisions to later. Which led directly to….
3. The crisis of credit confidence. Immediately following the debt ceiling debacle, the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded their rating on U.S. debt for the first time in history—a vote of “no confidence” in the nation’s ability to get its financial affairs in order.
4. The "Super Committee"? Not so super. As part of the debt ceiling compromise, Congress established a 12-member “Super Committee” charged with reducing the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, with a November deadline to present their plan. The deadline came and passed, but the committee failed to deliver as negotiations deteriorated over disputes over tax hikes and much-needed reforms to entitlements and defense spending.
5. Spending and spending, but without a plan. Washington has proven it can’t prepare and live under a budget, but one thing Congress is good at is spending money, right? Not necessarily.
Congress is supposed to pass appropriations bills directing how billions in federal funds will be spent in a given fiscal year before October 1 (certain spending categories, like defense, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are automatic and thus exempted from this process). This year, they missed that deadline, yet again. As I write on December 20, Congress has only passed three of 12 appropriations bills—more than three months behind schedule.
Following the elections of 2010, which delivered a withering blow to the president’s congressional majorities, many people thought our elected officials might get the message and finally embrace a true commitment to fiscal responsibility—cutting spending and getting the national debt under control.
No such luck.
Why? Chalk it up to a lack of leadership and responsibility on the part of our elected officials. And while Republicans and Democrats are furiously pointing fingers and playing the blame game, it’s time we hold them all accountable with a simply, three-word demand: “Keep your promises.”
As we wrap up 2011 and survey the wreckage in the nation’s capital, maybe at least a few of our leaders will take those three words to heart and make it their New Year’s resolution for a more constructive, productive 2012. Here’s hoping.
Gretchen Hamel is Executive Director of Public Notice, an independent, nonpartisan, non-profit dedicated to providing facts and insight on the economy and how government policy affects Americans’ financial well being.