A Leaner Leviathan

Unfortunately, balancing the federal budget won't require radical change.

Before it began its work eight months ago, one of the main knocks against the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform was that it could do no more than recommend changes to Congress. In the end, it could not even do that, falling three votes shy of the 14 needed to officially submit its plan for congressional consideration.

Still, the commission's report, which was endorsed on Friday by a bipartisan majority of 11 out of its 18 members, is well worth a look. In addition to suggesting some much-needed reforms, including changes to the budget process and simplification of the tax code, it clearly shows, despite its talk of "painful" choices, that eliminating the federal deficit and reining in the national debt does not require radical change. Which is too bad, because even if Congress implemented every cut suggested by the report, the federal government would still be far too big, rife with programs that are unnecessary, unconstitutional, or both.

The report paints an appropriately dire picture of the nation's fiscal outlook.  The annual deficit, currently more than $1.4 trillion, amounts to 9 percent of gross domestic product, while federal debt held by the public, currently 62 percent of GDP (up from 33 percent in 2001) is expected to exceed the size of the entire economy by 2025, with interest alone topping $1 trillion. "America's long-term fiscal gap is unsustainable," the report says.

Despite that daunting description, the solutions proposed by the commission are mild and gradual. It suggests, for example, that Congress "hold spending in 2012 equal to or lower than spending in 2011," "return spending to pre-crisis 2008 levels in real terms in 2013," and "limit future spending growth to half the projected inflation rate through 2020."

Even this sort of modest spending restraint, of course, will provoke squeals of protest from the affected interest groups. Honeywell International Chairman David Cote said some of his fellow commission members used words like draconian and destroyed in discussing "something like a 5 percent increase over 10 years becoming a 4 percent increase over 10 years." The expectations embedded in such complaints go a long way toward explaining the cowardly profligacy that got us into the current mess.

The commission's report does not really challenge those expectations. To the contrary, it argues that the federal government should spend a little less today so that it can spend more tomorrow. The commission worries that escalating interest payments "will hamstring the government, depriving it of the resources needed to respond to future crises and invest in other priorities," such as "education, infrastructure, and high-value research and development"—not to mention  a "robust, affordable, fair, and sustainable safety net."

Although the report says Congress must "eliminate waste and excess in bloated agency budgets," it repeatedly stops short of demanding an end to pernicious programs. It's all well and good to reduce federal education spending, cut farm subsidies, or trim the Department of Housing and Urban Development's budget. But a legislature that was serious about setting fiscal priorities (not to mention respecting constitutional limits on federal power) would abolish these programs altogether.

Likewise, to illustrate the "alarming proliferation of federal programs," the commission notes that "the government funds more than 44 job training programs across nine different federal agencies, at least 20 programs at 12 agencies dedicated to the study of invasive species, and 105 programs meant to encourage participation in science, technology, education, and math." But the report never raises the possibility that the proper number of such programs is zero.

Given the scope of the commission's mandate, it is perhaps not surprising that it did not delve into such questions. But unless we are comfortable with a federal leviathan that consumes more than a fifth of the economy, which it would continue to do forever even if the commission's plan were enacted unchanged, we need to go beyond demanding that the government do more efficiently things it should not be doing at all.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2010 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • Mike E||

    What is really discouraging is that the "best" plan so far comes from Congressman Ryan, which takes decades to even balance the budget. Who knows how long it would take to pay off the debt.

    I think the only way to really reduce the size of the federal government is to let it go belly up.

  • ArbutusJoe||

    A bi-partisan commission of ex-Federales releases pablum to the masses. Suprise, suprise...

  • -||

    Metaphor fail. Pablum was a bland and inoffensive cereal for infants. The Commission's "mild and gradual" recommendations have managed to shock and alarm just about every pressure group out there.

  • ArbutusJoe||

    Pablum as in "worthless ideas"; look it up before you quip like a freshman English major.

  • ArbutusJoe||

    Oh and by the way asshole, I spelled "surprise" wrong, twice! If you're going to be a posting Nazi, be a good posting Nazi. Do I have to do your job for you?

  • Ben Bernanke||

    America's long-term fiscal gap is unsustainable

    And yet, we manage to sustain it.

  • Rich||

    we need to go beyond demanding that the government do more efficiently things it should not be doing at all.

    The administration could attempt to mollify Jacob by requiring the next "National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform" to not look at things the government should not be doing at all, since such looking would be a thing that the government should not be doing at all. OTOH, such a requirement might violate the Commerce Clause. SOTUS, here we come!

    Seriously, this.

  • Rich||

    *SCOTUS. Coffee.

  • GIR||

    Yay, we're doomed!

  • Rich||

    On a somewhat lighter note ...

    Woman arrested for biting off husband's tongue

    (Props to Drudge.)

  • Realist||

    Two has beens that never were!

  • Bucky||

    speaking of bitin'... looks like spooky dude bit off more than he can chew. "a democratic dictatorship"Hah!
    there are too many people paying attention, calling, showing up in the hallowed halls...
    if Congress doesn't grow some agates Hooverville will look like a Boy Scout Camporee.

  • sevo||

    Hey, we can cut NASA to the bone:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/.....id=topnews
    Space X hits orbit: "...NASA officials praised the SpaceX effort as quicker and cheaper than previous NASA development projects..."

  • ||

    Of course many/most Americans want these programs whether they are constitutional or not. See for examples the crying when anyone mentions SS or Medicare.

    Me, I'd be happy if we could just get spending down to the 18-19% of GDP.

  • Realist||

    You're in luck here is the answer. Since the total of all poverty programs in 2009 cost $591 billion....eliminating the poverty programs will save $591 billion a year. And the beauty of this is we will be eliminating payments to people who put nothing into the programs and we will not have to eliminate payments to people who did pay into the programs, SS and Medicare! See now wasn't that easy???

  • ||

    Aside from SS, and Medicare/Medicaid, I didn't think the Fed spent that much money on poverty programs. Certainly not as much as 591b.

    The closet I can come to it is this

    http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/year2010_0.html

    But that includes Unemployment insurance.

  • Realist||

    Comes from the CATO institute.

  • Realist||

  • ||

    Ahh, so they are including Medicaid spending, that makes more sense.

  • Cuddly Soft Balls of Death||

    Here's my idea:

    Every four years on the mid-term cycle, the 25 most expensive, intrusive or useless government agencies are put on a ballot. Each one has five choices for reducing their budget, 0%, 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100%. It should be patently obvious by now that our Congress can't do it, so let's get some democracy up in that bitch.

    Find out how many people really want them, and how much.

  • ||

    "unless we are comfortable with a federal leviathan"

    I don't think anyone is *comfortable* with it, we just lack the power to change it.

  • CE||

    The power has been there all along. Only the will is lacking.

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  • wubai||

    How about mbt kisumu sandals this one: there are X driving deaths a year- what % of driving deaths (or serious injuries) involve alcohol, or other intoxicating substances? kisumu 2 People are pretty darn good drivers when they are not impaired.

  • jiusuan||

    good

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