Next month the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, a 12-member subset of Congress that Congress created to make the hard fiscal choices Congress itself has failed to make, is expected to propose $1.2 trillion in cuts from projected spending during the next decade. This week Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, unveiled a plan to cut nearly that much in 2013 alone, followed by similar cuts in the next two years, yielding a balanced budget by 2015.
The contrast between the so-called super committee's goal and Paul's plan shows how pathetic official Washington's gestures of fiscal responsibility are, even in these supposedly straitened times. Paul's detailed numbers refute the myth that the budget cannot be balanced without raising taxes while challenging his opponents—none of whom has offered anything nearly as specific—to put up or shut up.
Paul's plan not only extends the tax cuts enacted under the Bush administration; it reduces the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent while abolishing taxes on inheritances, capital gains, and personal savings. It nevertheless manages to eliminate the budget deficit within three years, largely by reducing military spending, capping most programs at 2006 spending levels, converting Medicaid and other welfare programs into block grants, and eliminating five cabinet-level departments: Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior.
As USA Today noted, Paul is "a longtime critic of federal spending not authorized by the Constitution"—a description that applies to sadly few members of Congress, all of whom take an oath to respect the limits imposed on the federal government by the document that created it. Yet Paul's plan would not return the country to the 1990s, let alone the 19th century. It calls for total outlays of $2.9 trillion in 2015, which is about as much as the federal government spent as recently as 2003, adjusted for inflation.
You may not agree with Paul's priorities, but at least he has laid them out for everyone to see. Meanwhile, the vast majority of his fellow legislators continue to pretend there is no need to prioritize at all.
Consider military spending. Counting savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Paul calls for $832 billion in cuts over four years, which would leave the Pentagon's base budget in 2016 about 2 percent lower than it is now. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, backed by both Republicans and Democrats, insists cuts of that magnitude would be "catastrophic." Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warns that "indiscriminate cuts" would cause "potentially irrevocable wounds to our national security." Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, complains that "too many appear to believe that we can maintain a solid defense that is driven by budget choices, not strategic ones."
Indiscriminate cuts may be undesirable, but so is indiscriminate spending, which is what we have now, with the United States accounting for more than two-fifths of the world's military outlays. Budget choices should drive strategic choices, since we can no longer afford to squander defense dollars on projects that have little or nothing to do with defense, whether it's launching optional wars across the globe or protecting rich allies that are perfectly capable of protecting themselves.
Paul's proposed abolition of various departments, agencies, and programs likewise should stimulate debate about the federal government's priorities. Aside from carrying out the decennial "enumeration" mandated by Article I, Section 2, does the Commerce Department do anything that is constitutionally authorized, let alone essential? What about HUD? Why should education be a federal responsibility at all, let alone one that requires an entire department? Is transportation security properly handled by the federal government or, as Paul argues, by the property owners whose interests are at stake?
These are the sort of questions presidential candidates would try to answer if they were truly determined to get our fiscal house in order.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.
© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.