Outrageous! That’s my shocked reaction after looking deep into details of the $1.9 billion coronavirus relief package Congress is considering. Outrageous, not because I’m against valid and much-needed COVID relief for individuals and businesses truly hurt by this pandemic. And not because increased spending isn’t needed for testing, vaccine distribution and other health care responses to the virus.
But money to help those with real needs will likely add up to less than half of the bloated spending that’s been crammed into this package in the guise of “relief.” Every unwarranted, special-interest dollar stuffed into this bill adds an additional burden to our already unsustainable national debt. Yet few Americans seem to mind. The debt has disappeared as a public concern in a national fit of amnesia — even as it grows by leaps and bounds.
The debt poses a grave threat to our democracy, economy and peace of mind. The federal government’s addiction to unrestrained spending and our disregard for the destructive impact of growing debt poses an increasing risk of fiscal crisis, lower income, higher interest payments and a weakened ability to respond to other urgent problems. It’s a bomb that could explode at any time if Americans and our elected leaders don’t wake up. Stripping this coronavirus relief package back to essentials is a good place to start.
Deficits depress growth and prosperity
As a well-known “budget hawk” during my 18 years in Congress and two terms as governor of Ohio, I’ve made budget issues a priority throughout my career. And while I’ve been troubled by the federal debt for a long time now, I’ve never seen more ominous signs of crisis than those I’m seeing today.
Just for starters: The Congressional Budget Office recently projected that sometime this year, the total federal debt will exceed the size of the entire U.S. economy. If current laws governing taxes and spending generally remain unchanged, the CBO projects that the federal budget deficit will total $2.3 trillion this year and federal debt will reach 102% of the U.S. gross domestic product. By that measure, we’re headed for the second worst deficit since the wartime spending of 1945, a terrifying omen of even greater deficits to come.
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Even worse, these frightening numbers were calculated before factoring in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill. Money for a bridge and the arts belongs in a different bill, as does most of the $129 billion for K-12 education — especially since CBO estimates the great bulk of it wouldn’t be spent until after the pandemic. Yet even if this overstuffed package is scaled back to necessities, it will be one more heavy straw on the camel’s back.
Some will tell you “there’s nothing to see here,” that deficits don’t matter, and that Democrats and Republicans alike have ignored them for years. For an example of the latter, I can point to the 2017 tax cuts, which were never counterbalanced with sufficient cuts in spending. But I’ve always believed that deficits, debt and their root cause, uncontrolled spending, truly do matter because they hold back economic growth and national prosperity. They affect far more than the federal government and its programs. Their economic corrosion eventually spreads throughout our economy, to businesses large and small, and to America’s standing in the world.
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Perhaps few are taking this crisis seriously because of a misguided sense that America can just print more money as it’s needed and painlessly spend its way out of insolvency. But that is like thinking we can repeal the law of gravity. These deficits and debt will have to be borne by our children and grandchildren. It is our urgent obligation to stop this endless buildup of debt by reordering federal priorities, balancing the budget and getting spending under control.
Don’t bend to extremes on left or right
All that may seem impossible, given today’s political climate. But there are strategies that have succeeded. The White House and Congress used them more than 20 years ago, the last time the federal budget was balanced, when I was chair of the House Budget Committee. More recently, a similar approach helped us make historic budget headway when I was governor of Ohio. Here’s how it worked back then and, with some effort, can be made to work now:
►Strip out the politics. Be fair-minded. Drop any favoritism, examine every program and ask whether it should exist, whether it should be privatized, whether a public-private partnership can take on the responsibility. The federal government must be willing to decentralize and send some responsibilities (like highways) back to the states. Think in terms of the 21st century, where reform should be the order of the day.
►Believe that good governing produces good politics. It doesn’t work the other way around. I’ve learned that successful budget-setting requires looking at the problems real people are facing, then working to fix them without regard to who’s going to scream the loudest or what special interests might be upset. You simply look at the problems, then come up solutions that work for people.
►Ignore the extremes. That gets more difficult every year, but it has to be done. Otherwise, bending to the extremes, both left and right, will lead to endless gridlock, even greater deficits and crushing debt. Bipartisanship and moderation have become dirty words to the dug-in margins of both political parties. But both those qualities will be essential if we’re ever to see a balanced federal budget and get this deficit monster under control.
One final bit of advice to budget negotiators: Just climb up, seize the high moral ground and work to solve problems. Believe me, it’s worked before. It can — and it must — work now.
John R. Kasich, governor of Ohio from 2011-2019, served in the House from 1983-2001 and chaired the House Budget Committee from 1995-2001. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnKasich