This week is supposed to be a crucial one for the deficit-reduction supercommittee. This morning’s newspapers are full of stories about whether or not the sequester will go into effect, and whether or not an agreement will be reached. According to these stories, lawmakers have concerns about what the supercommittee will come up with if an agreement is reached, and fears about the spending cuts that may take place if the supercommittee fails. But these fears are misplaced.
It’s not that there aren’t many reasons to be worried. We should worry. But our worry should be that the supercommittee, whether it succeeds or fails, won’t address our long-term fiscal problems, and that focusing on the supercommittee will take our attention away from what really needs to happen to put this country back on more solid fiscal ground. Here are a few reasons:
The fact that a supercommittee had to be created as part of the debt-ceiling deal is evidence, at least to me, that Congress isn’t serious about cutting spending. Creating a committee and hoping that its members will do Congress’s job for them makes it very likely that the process will fail. Seriously, if Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — were willing to cut spending, they wouldn’t need to hide behind the 12-member panel.
The supercommittee’s mission to reduce the deficit is misguided. Its mission should have been to reduce spending by at least $1.2 trillion. And by reducing spending, I mean really cutting spending, spending less money in 2014 than we spend in 2013.
The fear of sequestration is incredibly misguided. Under sequestration, federal spending will grow by $1.65 trillion between 2012 (2013 is the first year that sequestration takes place) and 2021, as opposed to the roughly $1.8 trillion growth on the books right now (check out this chart). Spending will grow dramatically under sequestration, so fears about the brutality of these alleged cuts are ridiculous — and that includes the fears about defense cuts. Under sequestration, the defense budget will grow by 16 percent as opposed to 23 percent. The cuts under sequestration are mainly cuts to the growth rate of spending (is anyone listening?).
The supercommittee’s mission distracts Congress from reforming the programs that are at the core of our fiscal problems: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. There is probably a role for a committee in solving this problem — to study the best ways to go about reforming these programs in a manner that preserves a safety net for people who couldn’t do without it.
So yes, we should be worried. In fact, we should be incredibly worried that Congress goes from a debt-ceiling crisis to a government-shutdown crisis and yet still resists addressing our real fiscal problems. Obviously, with only ten days left, there isn’t time for the supercommittee to do fundamental entitlement or tax reform. But it could do things like reducing the corporate-income-tax rate, block-granting Medicaid (which doesn’t mean cutting spending on health care for poor people), raising the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security, or ending corporate welfare (no more giving money to private companies to help them run their private profit-making businesses). Those steps wouldn’t solve all of our problems, but they would be steps in the right direction.