President Obama has said "show me your budget and I will show you your priorities." It is important to keep this idea in mind when listening to Republicans who have rediscovered the issue of "runaway" government spending that eluded them during the time of George W. Bush.
Here is a recent history of our federal budget:
We arrived at high deficits because we have not balanced the federal budget since President Clinton. Deficits cause us to borrow money, which raises the debt level. Our high federal debt (approximately $12 trillion) causes us to pay high interest on the debt. High interest payments and other spending continue the cycle of deficits.
We could balance the budget by (a) raising taxes and/or (b) cutting spending. With the recession in full force, no elected official is talking seriously about raising taxes.That leaves us with cutting spending, even though most of the budget is beyond serious debate. According to Wikipedia, the highest budget expenditures for Fiscal Year 2008 were:
- Social Security ($608 billion)*
- Department of Defense ($481 billion)
- Medicare ($386 billion)*
- Unemployment and Welfare ($324 billion)*
- Interest on the National Debt ($261 billion)*
- Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program ($209 billion)*
- Global War on Terror ($145 billion)
- Department of Health and Human Services ($69 billion)
- Department of Education ($56 billion)
- Department of Veteran's Affairs ($39 billion)
The budget deficit was approximately $240 billion. And it is higher now because of the recent stimulus packages and bailouts, but this figure will work.
OK - let's try reducing our spending. To do that, we would have to forget about changing the expenditures above with an asterisk because they are mandatory. Anyone for reducing spending on the Department of Defense?
Unless we want to get out of the two wars we are fighting any time soon, I don't believe that will happen.
How about spending less on fighting terrorists? It would take a bold move by one of our leaders to call for an investigation of whether the Central Intelligence Agency funded al-Qaeda, in part as a way of justifying its (non-published) budget. We lack this kind of boldness in our current leaders, so forget that.
We would next have to go through the departments. The problem with this approach, though, is that many states rely upon federal spending to fund programs they cannot afford with state money. This raises the idea of "robbing Peter to pay Paul," which defeats the purpose.
One last try: We could cut out spending to those who are not entitled to it, like illegal immigrants. That sounds good, but consider: we would first have to identify them (i.e. more money on enforcement of laws) and second, we would have to contend with court decisions like Plyer v Doe, which forbid shutting off services like education to the children of illegal immigrants.
It looks like we are stuck. We will never balance our budgets or reduce our debts unless we change our thinking about why we spend our money the way we do. In short, if we want to keep our entitlements, fight two unnecessary wars and pretend to get bin Laden, we will have no choice but to put our money where our mouths are.