The National Budget and the National Interest

Feb 15, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Budget accountability requires a profound sense of the national interest. Achieving it does not require a magic formula or exotic economic calculation. It requires political will. And it requires much more public education by political leaders.

My perspective on this issue is heavily influenced by twelve years' experience on the Senate Budget Committee. The principal difference between then (the 1970s and 80s) and now is the number of zeroes. Then we thought a hundred billion dollars, or even a billion, was a huge amount of money. Now we are dealing in trillions. Otherwise, the issues are pretty much the same.

The way any budget is balanced, whether private, corporate, or public, is to match spending with revenues. If imbalance occurs, reduce spending and raise revenues. Since Republicans will never vote to raise revenues, and indeed persist in cutting taxes, and many if not most Democrats are too politically traumatized to do so, even when they know it to be necessary, this leaves only cutting government services to achieve fiscal balance.

The problem with "cutting spending", as everyone knows (including those for whom this is chanted like a mindless mantra), is that to make a real dent in a massive current deficit requires abandoning critical government agencies, including those required for national security such as the FBI and CIA, not to say also virtually all human relief programs, the highway programs, aid to all levels of education, slashing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and the list goes endlessly on. It certainly also requires ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Unless one is prepared to tell the American people the truth about this, those who claim the budget can be balanced by "cutting spending" ought to list exactly and publicly the programs they will vote to eliminate, including particularly those benefiting their own States and districts, or they should shut up.

As demonstrated in the 1990s, the national budget can only be balanced during times of economic growth when existing individual and corporate tax structures generate sufficient revenues to pay the nation's bills--all those programs we benefit from and demand. I don't know of a time in modern memory, or perhaps in history, when the U.S. had a balanced budget in time of war or economic recession.

So, the first steps toward fiscal integrity and accountability is to recognize the need for new revenues that can be raised without suppressing recovery, deferred spending (including the infamous "earmarks"--the new polite political word for old fashioned pork) that also is not critical to stimulate economic recovery, and getting jobless people back to work repairing our infrastructure and rebuilding our nation.

There is every reason not to expect honesty from those who use political slogans to avoid making hard choices and little reason to expect genuine statesmanship from those who continue to preach that we can have lower taxes, special interest earmarks, and budget accountability. These politicians should at least have the good grace not to claim concern for the national interest and national security.

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