Brent Batten: D.C.'s big deal is no big deal


The national debt everyone is talking about these days is around $14 trillion.

The “big deal” President Barack Obama wants to strike to address it would cut $4 trillion off the debt.

That should bring it to around $10 trillion, a sizeable reduction, right?


Because the big cuts in the big debt cutting deal are spread out over 10 years. Stated another way, the big cuts in the big debt cutting deal will never happen. One Congress can’t bind a future Congress to anything, certainly not to spending caps that inhibit that future Congress’s ability to spread money around to enhance members’ chances at re-election.

Even if those future Congresses agree to the spending levels in the “big deal” the national debt would still nearly double over the 10-year period it covers. So much for a limit on the debt ceiling.

It is difficult to grasp the magnitude of the numbers being bandied about in Washington, D.C., where billions are now pocket change and millions lie six places to the right of the decimal point, too little to trifle with in the current discussion.

But as the national debt approaches the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling that Congress must extend or risk a national default on obligations, here is what is really being discussed.

The Office of Management and Budget estimates that total federal spending over the next 10 years will amount to $45.9 trillion. In each of those years, the government will spend more than it takes in. So over the course of those 10 years, the national debt, the accumulation of all annual deficits, will grow from its present level of about $14 trillion to more than $26 trillion.

The “big deal” proposes that federal spending over the 10 years be “slashed” to $42 trillion, $4 trillion less than currently contemplated. By doing so the national debt would stand at “only” $22 trillion at the end of 2021.

No one is saying specifically where the $4 trillion in savings would come from. Nor can anyone say that government spending will be less in any year than it was the year before. In other words, the federal budget will continue to grow every year, just not as fast as it might have if the “big deal” hadn’t been reached.

Promises of future spending cuts are hardly new in Washington. Most famously, President George H.W. Bush in 1990 broke his “no new taxes” pledge in a budget deal that was supposed to include long-term spending reductions. Taxes went up, spending didn’t go down, and Bush, in spite of presiding over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, was voted out of office.

When Congress and the president talk about spending cuts down the road, they merely show that they’re not serious about spending cuts.

They have an opportunity to cut spending in the budget they are required to pass every year. Yet somehow, the cuts everyone talks about wanting don’t make it into those budgets.

The U.S. Senate, controlled by Democrats, hasn’t passed a budget in more than two years.

In May, President Obama submitted a budget proposal that senators rejected by a vote of 97-0.

The U.S. House, controlled by Republicans, passed a budget and long-term spending outlook in April. The Ryan plan, as it is known, was criticized by Democrats as being too severe in the cuts it suggested _ about $6 trillion worth _ but even those cuts were projected over 10 years. Actual cuts for 2012, the year the budget would control, amount to about $100 million, a start, perhaps, but a small one. It was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 57 to 40.

On Monday, House Speaker John Boehner spoke of the need for a balanced budget amendment in conjunction with a deal to raise the debt limit. But constitutional amendments are years in the making and the present crisis will have passed long before any such amendment sees the light of day.

An alternative is the so-called One Cent Solution championed by U.S. Rep. Connie Mack of Southwest Florida. It would require government spending to go down by one percent a year for six years then be capped at 18 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. It theoretically balances the budget in 2019.

The bill has more than 140 supporters in the House and was introduced in the Senate this week with the endorsement of fiscal hawk Sen. Rand Paul.

Mack spokesman David James said supporters are pushing for the bill to be part of any debt ceiling deal. “Connie has been in very active conversations with all members of leadership,” said James. He believes the plan will catch on with voters, making it difficult for legislators in the future to ignore or repeal its provisions. “The people are crying out. They want less government. They want less spending,” he said.

Bill Wilson, president of the fiscally conservative Americans for Limited Government, is among the legion of cynics as Congress and the president talk about cutting spending some future day. “C’mon,” he said. “We’ve been there before. It never happens.”

Bottom line, the “big deal” in Washington these days is no big deal at all.

Connect with Brent Batten at

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