The good news out of the debt debate is that Washington is now debating how much we can cut instead of how much we can spend. The American people deserve all the credit for forcing that change. Unfortunately, it’s still all talk in Washington. This deal is a victory for politicians but a defeat for families.
In spite of what politicians on both sides are saying, this agreement does not cut any spending over 10 years. In fact, it increases discretionary spending by $830 billion.
I voted against this agreement because it does nothing to address the real drivers of our debt. It eliminates no program, consolidates no duplicative programs, cuts no tax earmarks and reforms no entitlement program. The specter of default or a credit downgrade will still hang over our economy after this deal becomes law.
Politicians on both sides are misleading the country by calling a slowdown in the growth rate of new spending a “cut.” Spending will increase at a time when real cuts are necessary to make us live within our means, repair our economy and preserve our credit rating.
It is true that next year there will be a genuine cut of $7 billion when discretionary spending drops from $1.05 trillion to $1.043 trillion. But with our government borrowing $4.5 billion a day, that $7 billion is enough to fund the government for about 36 hours. And after our day and a half of restraint, spending will increase $830 billion over 10 years.
Supporters say the real savings will come when the joint committee the deal empowers makes recommendations to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion (as we increase the debt limit by the same amount). But the enforcement mechanism designed to force these hard decisions — across-the-board cuts to defense and nondefense programs — will never work. Congress will easily evade these caps. In the Senate, all it will take is 60 votes — the threshold for passing anything. Some have complained about defense cuts, but everyone in Washington knows those cuts can be avoided through supplemental or “emergency” spending bills.
I proudly served on the president’s debt commission and spent months negotiating with senators of both parties in the Gang of Six. But I took a break from the Gang of Six because we were not offering enough savings, especially in entitlements, to heal our economy. And the truth is that the joint committee is likely to be a step backward from the Gang of Six and the Bowles-Simpson commission.
I am the first to admit that, with this plan, the commission process in Washington has become a farce. The plan’s joint committee has been called a “super” committee because it is anything but.
For our country’s sake, I hope I am wrong. Nothing prevents the congressional committee from recommending deficit reduction far in excess of $1.2 trillion. For that to happen, however, both sides will have to sacrifice their sacred cows and embrace real entitlement reform and tax reform.
Experience has taught me that to achieve real savings, there is no substitute for being specific. In Washington, however, wide is the road that leads to pledges, commissions and caps, and narrow is the road that leads to cuts. That’s why I have targeted specific excesses such as the “Bridge to Nowhere” and the ethanol tax earmark. It’s why I recently released a 620-page report, “Back in Black,” that makes hundreds of recommendations and calls for $9 trillion in deficit reduction. Congress could spend a year eliminating no-brainer examples of waste and duplication, such as our government’s policy of directing unemployment benefits to millionaires.
I understand that Congress is not ready to accept $9 trillion in deficit reduction even though changes of that magnitude are necessary to heal our economy. Congressional leaders are probably correct that this is the best deal they could have gotten. The only recourse the people have, then, is to elect lawmakers who will produce better results.
I was among the first members of Congress to call for using the debt-limit debate as leverage to force spending cuts. I’m glad I did. Even though the cuts didn’t materialize, the debate informed the American people of the scope and magnitude of the problem.
The real debt crisis is not a debate that has been imposed on Washington by Tea Party activists. It is a crisis Washington has imposed on the American people through laziness, incompetence, dishonesty and political expediency. Politicians can talk all they want about how they did something to address the problem. But when the flaws of this plan become apparent, another change election will be coming.
Edit Note: This opinion column by Dr. Coburn first appeared today in the Washington Post.