When Republicans made the federal deficit the centerpiece of their November 2010 campaigns, it was a rare convergence of smart policy meeting smart politics.
Now that they have been forced to come in off the sidelines and govern, however, Republicans have quickly ditched the smart policy in favor of smart politics. Instead of attempting to construct a feasible, bipartisan, long-term solution to the deficit, they tried to fool the American people with infinitesimally small deficit reductions. Ditching smart policy in favor of Beltway politics, Republicans voted for huge (and unpaid-for) tax cuts for the wealthy and promised $100 billion in cuts to services, essential to the lives of working families, while refusing to touch defense spending. Meanwhile, they're taking almost $5 trillion in spending off-budget (e.g., tax provisions, war on terrorism, designated emergencies and health care repeal), while remaining silent on the serious choices our country faces. This disingenuous approach is not what the country requires or the voters want.
The federal deficit is growing at an alarming rate. Without some correction, our deficit will continue to explode. The deficit for the next two years is projected at more than $1 trillion annually, and the overall deficit projection for the next decade is more than $7 trillion. Deficits like this are unsustainable and only lead to a downward cycle of forcing us to take on more debt.
Not only do interest payments on this debt threaten to overwhelm the budget, but if our national debt continues to skyrocket to somewhere between 75 percent and 95 percent of gross domestic product over the next decade (far beyond the 60 percent that most economists consider the highest level of sustainable deficit), it threatens America's credit rating. A downgrade in the country's credit rating would create an economic crisis that would make the last two years seem like a dress rehearsal for something devastatingly bigger.
Voters understand this problem. A recent CBS poll found that 56 percent of the country realizes that the deficit needs immediate action. This is where things get tricky because Republicans have long believed that attacking the deficit should coincide with an attack on the social safety net through cuts to federally funded Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and education.
Unfortunately for Republicans, hardly anyone seems to agree with them. CNN found last month that less than 25 percent of people support cuts from any of those areas in order to reduce the budget deficit. As a result, Republicans have instead pivoted to "deficit reduction" through cuts to nondefense discretionary spending.
In doing so, the GOP Conference leadership avoided identifying specific programs -- worried that voters would balk once they knew which programs face cuts -- and instead offered across-the-board cuts that avoid the hard choices. They coupled this with budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent and an effort to repeal a health care law that would reduce the deficit by over $200 billion.
This is not a serious approach to reducing the deficit.
Nondefense discretionary spending makes up less than half of discretionary spending. More meaningful cuts should come from bloated defense spending, for example, a cut supported by 50 percent of the voters.
More importantly, the Republican rules package, the rules that the majority party sets for the House at the beginning of each Congress, specifically took the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan off-budget. Stopping our enormous open-ended investment in Afghanistan would reduce our long-term debt by more than $1 trillion and do more to cut the deficit than any of the Republican Party's supposed deficit reduction efforts, such as the Republican bill to end public financing of campaigns.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), my colleague on the Budget Committee who introduced that bill -- H.R. 359 -- estimated that it would save $617 million over 10 years. That's roughly the same savings we would realize in two days from ending our involvement in an endless war in Afghanistan. Every day we stay in Afghanistan, we add more than $325 million to our debt. (Withdrawing from Afghanistan one year earlier, say in 2013 instead of 2014, would save American taxpayers well over $100 billion.)
In the coming months, we will have a number of serious debates over the budget, the deficit, the debt limit and our national priorities. We owe it to the American people to place all options on the table and to respond to what the voters want, rather than twist their wishes to match our own partisan agenda. As a member of both the Budget and Appropriations committees, I look forward to working with my colleagues to put our fiscal house in order and point our economy in the right direction for the 21st century.
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