Opinion: Columnists

No easy fix for budget deficit

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The big winner of the three presidential debates is government spending. Mitt Romney singled out only a few small programs that he thinks are ripe for cutting, and President Obama stayed away from any specifics.

Interestingly, during the final debate, which mainly focused on the security of the United States, Mitt Romney signaled that he understood the need to cut spending when he said that the biggest threat to our national security is our gigantic burden of government debt. In saying this, he followed the steps of Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has repeatedly said that "the single biggest threat to our national security is our debt, so I also believe we have every responsibility to help eliminate that threat," He continued, "We must, and will, do our part."

Unfortunately, Romney immediately continued by saying that he wouldn't cut defense spending. And that's not the only spending that Romney would like to shelter from cuts. During previous debates, he also ruled out cutting Medicare, education spending, Social Security and a few other programs. He did promise to cut nondefense appropriations by "about 5 percent." But a 5 percent reduction of 16 percent of the FY12 spending -- that's $29 billion -- would barely make a dent to our $1.09 trillion deficit.

The president was no better. In fact he couldn't find a spending program he wouldn't like to boost, and to everyone's surprise, he even promised that the scheduled sequestration cuts would not happen. These across-the-board spending reductions alone wouldn't be enough to put an end to our deficit, but they would at least be a start that both Congress and the president agreed to after a heated debt-ceiling debate in the summer of 2011.

But the present levels of spending are not an option. More importantly, everything has to be on the table, because even the total elimination of any one program would not be enough to balance the budget. For instance, imagine that Social Security were abolished today. Even though it is currently the single biggest government expenditure, costing $762 billion in 2012 (that's 22 percent of all spending), its abolition wouldn't be enough to close our deficit.

The same is true of welfare payments. Means-tested welfare spending reached $746 billion in fiscal 2011 -- including some $250 billion in Medicaid payments. Yet zeroing out Medicaid would still leave us with an $840 billion deficit, and the elimination of all welfare programs would still leave a $350 billion budget gap.

Medicare consumes 13 percent of federal dollars, or $469 billion in 2012, and is one the drivers of our future debt. But even if we just drop Medicare, it would still leave us with a $620 billion deficit.

The bottom line is that there is no silver bullet for balancing the budget. We didn't get in this fiscal mess overnight, and it will take us some time to get out of it. More importantly, the only way we will balance the budget is for Congress to agree to put everything on the table -- including the Pentagon (which consumes 18 percent of the federal budget), Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and also nondefense programs like education and -- of course -- Big Bird.

Examiner Contributor Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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