Budget Realities and Political Courage

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February 25, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Some of the most important choices recently made by Congress concern the budget. The House of Representatives has passed legislation that would cut federal spending for the rest of the year by more than $60 billion. The Senate and the President are deciding how much of these spending reductions they are willing to accept. An impasse could produce a government shutdown.

None of us envy the choices that members of Congress are now forced to make. Everyone agrees that the current fiscal direction of the federal government is unsustainable. Instead of securing the blessings of liberty for our posterity, we are weighing down posterity with unfair burdens. But deciding where to cut is both difficult and important. The budget is a statement of our government’s political and moral priorities.

It is still early in the budget process. But so far, the priorities of Congress have been unbalanced. To understand why, it is necessary to know a few facts about the budget. What we normally think of as federal spending—money for things such as education, or food stamps, or foreign aid—is only about 12 percent of the federal budget. But this category, called discretionary spending, is where the House GOP made its cuts—reducing funding for child nutrition, AIDS drugs and malaria programs.

The largest portion of the federal budget is called mandatory spending—funding for entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. This represents about 40 percent of the budget, and it is growing. By 2030, combined spending on entitlements is likely to exceed half of all Federal spending. A growing percentage of the budget will also be consumed by interest payments on our national debt. This leaves a shrinking amount of money for important and compassionate functions of government. Put another way, America’s fiscal crisis does not exist because the government spends too much on child nutrition or AIDS treatment. It exists because of expansive entitlement commitments, an aging population and rising health care inflation.

Debates on discretionary spending are important. Our government should not waste money on ineffective programs. But discretionary spending is a sideshow, even a distraction, from the main governing task: getting entitlement spending under control so it does not crowd out all other government spending.

This has not been the focus of the federal debate. President Obama’s budget avoided significant entitlement reform, kicking this problem down the road. Republicans have also not stepped up with a plan, though there are now indications they may do so in the Spring. Making the first move on entitlement reform will not be easy for anyone. Programs that help the poor are easier targets because they have limited political constituencies. Entitlement programs, in contrast, help the middle class, which has much greater political clout.

But this is not just a test for Congress. It is test for American citizens and voters. Will we support public officials who confront the real problems—or punish them for their courage?

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Topic(s): entitlement reform

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.