"Whew, we dodged the bullet," sighed many beneficiaries of the federal largesse. But did we, as taxpayers, dodge that bullet?
While some of the resistance to compromise was engendered by a wish to stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the temerity of the congressional standoff actually had its genesis in the fear that the nation is drowning in a sea of red ink. Although the current administration likes to point the finger of blame at the administration it succeeded, taxpayers should note well that the federal debt grew by just over $4 trillion during the entire eight years of the previous administration while the current administration has managed to increase the debt by more than $6 trillion. Admittedly, it has not been only the administration but congressional representatives as well, as they added more programs and projects to the federal budget.
It is obvious that elected officials at all levels of government believe the dollars that taxpayers are required to pay are theirs to spend to satisfy this or that constituency. And the constituents believe those tax dollars should be spent on their pet project or peeve. Even news reporters have come to report federal dollars as "free money" as they announce that this local project wasn't paid for by taxpayers because the money came from the federal government. It certainly makes one wonder whether or not some of these journalists fell asleep during the lesson on civics.
While the recent resolution of the loggerheads in Washington allowed the debt ceiling to be raised, that higher debt ceiling is temporary, lasting only until the beginning of next year. Although lawmakers and the administration don't seem to have taken the initial blow of sequestration to heart, they need to take to heart the fact that the federal government is spending more than it is taking in, and if the nation is to avoid default - that is, not being able to pay its bills - then the solution has to begin with a reining in of what we spend.
While some may argue that many of those new programs are needed, they seem to ignore the more important question of what services are no longer necessary or appropriate for the federal government to perform. During the shutdown, the media highlighted programs that would tug at the heartstrings of taxpayers, begging for empathy if not sympathy, be it the national parks or food stamps for the poor.
Rather than pandering to the emotional appeal, taxpayers should demand that elected officials and federal bureaucrats be held accountable for the outcomes of pet federal programs. For example, some decry the loss of the safety net for the poor and disadvantaged or the underserved. However, the current solution to the problem is to appropriate more financial assistance, including welfare payments, food stamps and the like. It is not that taxpayers should not have sympathy for the poor, but they should also ask how those federal programs will get the poor off the welfare rolls.
Is there, for example, a program to teach the poor job skills so they can become gainfully employed or, for that matter, to improve their financial literacy so they can better manage their money? Have lawmakers questioned the effectiveness of long-standing programs that people take for granted? Are the programs working or are they being justified just to keep the program alive and to keep those who hold jobs in that program employed?
Obviously, none of these questions was raised in the interim between sequestration and the threat of a complete government shutdown last month. As has been noted time and time again, government does not have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem, and until that spending is addressed we will be living off the credit card called the debt limit.
While the barbs traded back and forth pointed the finger of blame at both sides, it should be remembered that the definition of politics is that it is the art of compromise. It seems neither side was willing to compromise, as both sides were shouting it's my way or the highway. That is certainly not the kind of government wanted by taxpayers who have been asked to pay for it with their hard-earned dollars.
Taxpayers need to ask: If there was less government, would the economic outlook be better than it has been with looming debt overshadowing whatever economic prosperity there might be?
* Lowell L. Kalapa is president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii.