March 21, 2013
A New Path to a Balanced Budget?By Jim Guirard
Following the Congressional Republicans' extension of Barack Obama's authority to add to the National Debt until the end of this fiscal year, the GOP should offer President Obama and the Pelosi-Reid Democrats a novel "Grand Bargain." It is a plan which strongly supports the goal of a balanced budget in ten years now proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan - but differs slightly in the year-by-year tactics for achieving that goal.
Rather than trying to limit the debt irregularly and by arbitrary amounts, or limiting spending in ways tied to the Gross Domestic Product, this "back-up companion" to either the Ryan proposal or the Senate Democrats' proposal, or any other formula, would (a) set a strict limit on FY '14 borrowing and then (b) ratchet down by either $100 or $50 billion per year the amount that can then be borrowed to zero in 10 years, and with balanced budgets thereafter.
It is during these ten fiscal years of limited borrowing that all waste, fraud, abuse, duplication, and low-priority spending must gradually be ratcheted down and all pro-growth tax reforms, revenue enhancements, and regulatory reforms ratcheted up - in what would have become a truly rational budgeting process. In this context, actual "balance" would require that all entitlements (including "ObamaCare," dead or alive) be kept under today's 62% of total outlays. Because without this internal "ceiling" on entitlements, there will soon be little left for anything else.
At this point, Options #1 and #2 below (among several others which could be devised along similar lines) are presented for ease of understanding. Notice, please, that each of the tighter options might begin not at the generous $900-billion ceiling for FY '14, but at levels as low as $500 billion, and with FY ceiling reductions of only $50 billion, as set forth in Option #2.
OPTION # 1: Begin at $900 Billion - Reduce Each FY Ceiling by $100 Billion to Zero in 10 Years
Ten-Year Additions/Savings to Debt: $4.6 Trillion vs. $10.0 Trillion (Savings of $5.4 trillion)
In this orderly fashion, about $4.6 trillion (compared to about $5 trillion in the Paul Ryan plan) would still be added to the National Debt (up from $17 to $22 trillion by FY '23). But the open-ended option of "No Plan" whatever - and no mandate for accounting by FY - might lead to a debt of $28-30 trillion, instead, and with no prospect of a balanced budget ever.
Several Other Options (Including Your Own)
Of course, these are only two of many options, depending on what limits the opposing parties are willing to concede in achieving an escape from the ruinous path on which we are now headed. Rational, wide-awake, and non-suicidal readers should devise their own downward options, as long as they reach zero in ten years and promise "balance" thereafter.
Thus, for purposes of comparison, here is Option #2, whose ceiling begins at only $500 billion for FY '14 and ratchets down at only $50 billion a year to achieve "balance" in ten years - while adding less than $3 trillion to the debt. (Or what about beginning at $700 billion and reducing the next nine FY ceilings by $75 billion each, etc.?)
Option #2: Begin at $500 Billion - Reduce FY Ceilings by $50 Billion to Zero in 10 years
Ten-Year Additions to Debt: $2.8 Trillion vs. $10.0 Trillion (Savings of $7.2 Trillion)
While there would be many "what ifs" and contingencies in the final design of such limits, this uniquely understandable (and perhaps uniquely enforceable for that very reason) mechanism would make sufficient common sense to most people as to merit their proactive support of a constitutional amendment to this effect.
Although still limitless in number and complexity, the hundreds of competing items would no longer be funded by limitless borrowing. There would be no "starvation" or cruel "austerity" or sudden collapse in borrowing authority. Instead, there would be ten years of gradual ceilings under which all Ryan v. Obama "horse trading" and "head knocking" on each year's spending must be legislated - and with full notice to the CBO, OMB, GAO, and other fiscal planners.
At this point, if all of these planners were freed from their partisan chains, they would opt strongly for the plan proposed by Paul Ryan - whose estimated savings of $4.6 trillion in ten years closely resembles the $5.4 trillion in savings projected in Option #1 above.
And, of course, if all budget-balancing proposals are rejected out of hand, eternal blame for the "unsustainable" results which most experts predict should be placed squarely on those who so mindlessly insist that "we have no spending problem here." These are people who are already condemning the Paul Ryan plan as "propaganda," as "hard-hearted," and even as "radically extremist" - the same lovely label that Team Obama uses for al-Qaeda-style terrorists.
Returning to the "Regular Order"
But no matter what temporary accord is made, both Houses of Congress and the White House must agree that all future budgeting will be enacted under the "Regular Order." No more deals behind closed doors, and no more of the self-inflating "continuing resolutions" that have made Harry Reid's, President Obama's, and Senate President Joe Biden's "No Budgets" scams possible - with their "shut the government down" crises always nicely timed for Christmas Eve.
Those ignoble and scofflaw days of shielding Democrat incumbent senators from almost all controversial votes and of corrupting the balance-of-powers structure of the Congress should be gone - and condemned forever as being both in contempt of Congress and in contempt of the Constitution itself. For the first time in years, we should return to "zero-based" budgeting - i.e., starting "from scratch" rather than by inflating the already bloated plan from the previous year.
And once this modus operandi of gradually declining ceilings is in place, all proposed White House, Senate, and House Budgets should come forth at about the same "ballpark" totals of spending - but with most major internal differences yet to be debated, adopted by each House, and eventually finalized "In Conference" and controlled by the same Fiscal Year deadlines and accounting standards by which the entire federal government operates.
Of course, living within these mandates and dealing with any "emergencies" would be defined initially by statute only but would soon have to be assured by a fully agreed-upon constitutional amendment - which must also enshrine the FY calculus cited above, rather than allowing ourselves to be jerked around by such variables as the president's current loose talk about "$1.5 trillion for the next eighteen months."
And if an actual "emergency" demanded more funding, that special status would require a Presidential Proclamation and a two-thirds vote of both House and Senate - or, failing that two-thirds vote, would have to be "paid for" by cuts of up to 3% of all baseline amounts, but not mindlessly "sequestered" with no administrative discretion whatever.
Looking to the future, all of this could be far less onerous if, in the very act of meeting these limitations, the Congress and the White House were actually to trigger a rapidly improving economy, a major increase in revenues, a prudent cut in spending, and a "real and present" start in entitlement reform - and actually began achieving "balance" sooner than mandated.
Recall, please, that this is what happened in the mid-1990s, when the Gingrich-led Congress forced a sensible 5-year plan for balancing the budget on President Bill Clinton - who said it would take seven or nine or even eleven years to succeed, when it actually required only three.
Unfortunately, no matter how superior the Ryan plan may be to the Democrats' proposals, it will not prevail as the much-discussed but never very likely "Grand Bargain" with the Obama White House. But it can serve as a constant, side-by-side reminder of just how "Progressively Worse" the Obama-Pelosi-Reid alternatives of tax-spend-borrow ad infinitum really are.
The question now - in terms of debt limits beyond this September - is whether some version of Chairman Ryan's carefully reasoned proposals for a pro-growth, lower-taxes, less intrusive, and less horribly indebted government can somehow be combined with the novel "FY Ceilings on Borrowing" method for achieving at least the first year of a very specific ten-year "glide path" to a truly balanced budget.
This can, indeed, happen - if the House will simply (a) pass the Ryan Budget Bill as eventually amended, (b) limit the FY'14 ceiling on borrowing to $900 billion (or $800 or $700 billion), (c) provide that future FY ceilings decrease in such equal amounts as to balance in ten years, (d) send the bill to the Senate, and (e) notify the Senate that both now and later, the House will negotiate on such matters only in the "Regular Order" and only "In Conference."
A D.C.-area attorney, writer, and national security strategist, Jim Guirard was longtime chief of staff to former U.S. Senators Allen Ellender and Russell Long. His TrueSpeak.org website focuses on truth in language and truth in history in public discourse.
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