Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Opinion

Column: Government shackled by 'dead men'

In theory, the American people's elected representatives decide every so often how much to tax the public and how to allocate the revenue among various priorities, both short-term and long-term. In practice, however, Congress and the president have almost no such fiscal latitude. The vast majority of anticipated tax proceeds, roughly 80 percent at present, are already committed to be spent — on programs such as Social Security and Medicare and in interest on the national debt — before the House and Senate convene each January.

By 2023, the figure will approach 100 percent if current trends continue. Consequently, the federal government would have to borrow its entire discretionary budget, for things such as disaster relief, infrastructure and education. This near-total loss of "fiscal freedom" is the theme of Dead Men Ruling, a short, superb new book by C. Eugene Steuerle, from which the above statistics derive; the title nicely expresses the fact that today's lawmakers are tightly constrained by the accumulated, and seemingly unalterable, decisions of their predecessors. Government is not just out of their control; it's beyond their control.

Steuerle persuasively argues that the nation's budget challenge is not simply a matter of deficits and debt, important as they are.

Rather, the point is to restore a long-term balance between spending and revenue so that the federal government can invest in new priorities without further indebting an already dangerously indebted country.

Declining fiscal freedom is politically toxic, too. The two parties define themselves by past achievements — New Deal and Great Society programs for Democrats, low tax rates (and various tax breaks) for Republicans — and then fight uncompromisingly to perpetuate them.

"What began as legitimate desires to create a safety net and reduce very high tax rates," Steuerle writes, "has now morphed into a situation in which both liberals and conservatives live in the past — ruled over largely by the decisions and dictates of dead or retired officials — and seek mainly to protect and build on those victories."

Steuerle's book is an effective riposte to those who would argue that fiscal concerns are overblown in light of recent progress against the deficit or that "deficit hawks" are just rationalizing mean-spirited "austerity" to punish the poor and elderly.

To the contrary, what Steuerle shows is that the issue is long-term fiscal sustainability, which would provide flexibility. A government that lives within its means would be freer to stimulate the economy during recessions or to devote more resources to the needs of poor children — as opposed to maintaining the current consumption of older middle- and upper-middle-class voters, which is the unstated but actual purpose of the status quo.

A senior policy expert at the centrist Urban Institute and former Treasury Department official during the Reagan administration, Steuerle is a veteran of the 1986 tax reform fight and therefore not naive about the political heavy lifting it would take to restore America's lost fiscal freedom.

Titanic as that 1986 battle was, Steuerle acknowledges that its equivalent will have to be fought on multiple fronts if the United States is to escape its fiscal predicament and avoid the long-run stagnation that will otherwise prevail.

He reckons that the only precedents are the "fiscal turning points" the United States faced when it had to finance Revolutionary War debt at the end of the 18th century and when it had to institute an income tax and the Federal Reserve at the dawn of the 20th. Those reforms took decades; ditto, probably, for the institutional changes we need today.

At least Steuerle, unlike other budget pundits, is upbeat about the challenge, emphasizing the opportunities for policy innovation and reinvigorated governance that would result from the restoration of "fiscal freedom." As the intellectually sterile election campaigns currently under way show, however, few politicians, if any, have figured out how to express Steuerle's combination of realism and optimism and sell it to voters. The future might belong to the one who finally does.

Charles Lane is a member of the Washington Post's editorial board.

© 2014 Washington Post

Comments
Editorial: Listen to Marjory Stoneman Douglas students demanding change

Editorial: Listen to Marjory Stoneman Douglas students demanding change

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are traveling to the state capital today and declaring "never again.íí A prominent Florida Republican fundraiser vows he wonít raise another nickel until his party approves new gun controls. Across F...
Published: 02/19/18

Editorial: No more doubt about Russian meddling in election

The latest indictment by the Justice Department special counsel, Robert Mueller, refutes President Donald Trumpís claims that Russian interference in the 2016 election was a Democratic hoax. The indictment details the lengths Russian conspirators too...
Published: 02/19/18

Another voice: Tips should belong to workers, not their bosses

The Trump administration is under fire for proposing a Labor Department regulation that could result in hotel and restaurant employers dipping into the tips customers leave for their employees, depriving the nationís 14 million hard-working restauran...
Updated: 28 minutes ago
Editorial: Trumpís rising deficits and misplaced priorities

Editorial: Trumpís rising deficits and misplaced priorities

Itís not popular in Washington or virtually anywhere else these days to express concern about the rising federal deficit. Congressional Republicans who used to be deficit hawks first voted to cut taxes by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, then rais...
Published: 02/17/18
Editorial: Buckhorn should not appeal verdict in firefighterís case

Editorial: Buckhorn should not appeal verdict in firefighterís case

The city of Tampa should have taken Tanja Vidovic seriously from the start when the Tampa firefighter complained about her treatment in the workplace. Now that a jury and judge have spoken, itís time for City Hall to cut its losses, learn from its mi...
Published: 02/15/18
Updated: 02/16/18
Editorial: CareerSource troubles mount as public trust drops

Editorial: CareerSource troubles mount as public trust drops

The dark cloud enveloping Tampa Bayís job placement centers keeps growing. There are accusations of forged documents, evidence of nepotism and concerns about grossly inflated performance numbers that could be tied to receiving more public money and b...
Published: 02/15/18
Updated: 02/16/18
Editorials: Prayers and platitudes after shootings arenít enough

Editorials: Prayers and platitudes after shootings arenít enough

Even before the victims of another mass shooting at another public school were identified, Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, state legislators and members of Congress rushed to South Florida or to social media to offer their thoughts and p...
Published: 02/15/18
Editorial: DCF review should get to the bottom of Hillsborough foster care issues

Editorial: DCF review should get to the bottom of Hillsborough foster care issues

The Florida Department of Children and Families is right to call for a timely and "comprehensive" review of Hillsborough Countyís foster care system. Though the probe is a reaction to a recent case involving a child who was left unattended, the revie...
Published: 02/14/18

A Washington Post editorial: Modernize 911 calling before it becomes an emergency

This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the first 911 emergency call placed in the United States. Since then, uncounted lives have been saved and people helped. It has been a great accomplishment of government.But even as an estimated 240 million 9...
Published: 02/13/18
Updated: 02/14/18
Editorial: Scott, Cabinet cannot be trusted on felonsí voting rights

Editorial: Scott, Cabinet cannot be trusted on felonsí voting rights

Gov. Rick Scott always has been grudging and imperious about restoring the voting rights of felons, requiring them to wait for years before begging the governor and Cabinet to be recognized again as citizens. That arrogance is on full display in a le...
Published: 02/13/18