Those sounding the loudest alarms about possible shutdowns are largely silent when Congress ignores its own budgetary rules. All that seems to matter is that government is metaphorically funded.
You’ve undoubtedly noticed how up in arms everyone becomes when the government is on the verge of shutting down. I’ve also noticed that the people who most loudly express their horror at the notion of a partial government closure seem totally comfortable with the fiscal wall we are barreling into. That wall is being built, brick by brick, by two political parties that are unwilling to end Washington’s spending debauchery.
This isn’t to deny that some people would have been hurt by the recently averted shutdown (which, by the way, would not have made our debt smaller). It’s a call for consistency from anyone putting their good-government sensibilities on display.
Those sounding the loudest alarms last week are largely silent on the countless occasions when Congress ignores its own budgetary rules. They are rarely outraged when the government is financed with legislation that only expands the balance sheet regardless of whether the money is well spent. All that seems to matter is that government is metaphorically funded, since it usually means growing deficits and explosive debt.
Democrats and Republicans alike engage in fiscal recklessness by passing spending bills they don’t have the first cent to pay for. Politicians who won’t be around to pay the costs shower today’s voters with money that must be repaid by tomorrow’s taxpayers, many of whom aren’t yet born.
They rashly dispense tax credits, loan guarantees, and subsidies to big companies to do what they were going to do without these government-granted favors. The most recent example of this folly is the Inflation Reduction Act, which doled out billions in subsidies to green energy companies for projects most of the recipients had announced months before the bill was passed.
Republicans and Democrats also share in the habit of re-upping subsidies to large agricultural interests, which often raise the price of food. They sneakily bundled those subsidies into a bill that hands out Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—popularly known as food stamps—to the tune of $145 billion in 2023 (an increase from $63 billion in 2019).
Beyond the hidden subsidies, the SNAP program is ineffective at lifting families out of poverty. SNAP is designed in ways that likely create disincentives to work. American Enterprise Institute scholars have shown that as many as 71 percent of households receiving food stamps contain no workers and only about 6 percent have a full-time worker. If earning extra money means losing even more in government benefits, many people will understandably choose not to. Ultimately, such a system is bad for recipients and their children, who remain impoverished. Yet it persists because Congress won’t do much about it.
But the worst is of course the bipartisan refusal to reform Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Most of this spending is on autopilot, allowing Congress to repeatedly ignore the problem and others to argue that we should further increase benefits. It’s also the driver of our current and future debt. Where’s the outrage about this fiscal madness? Where are the demands that politicians show us their plans for reform?
One thing’s for sure: These calls aren’t coming from the shutdown alarmists. How many of them write similarly panicky commentaries about how, in about 10 years, Congress’ blatant inaction will lead to across-the-board cuts to entitlement benefits for both the rich and the poor? After all, if legislators decide to borrow more to avoid cuts rather than reforming the programs, it will add another $116 trillion over 30 years to our debt just for Medicare and Medicaid.
Newspapers should be full of reports about how Congress repeatedly fails to perform its core function and avoid this level of fiscal drama altogether. Elected officials should be too embarrassed to show their faces in public. Instead, they can just promise more spending because the real “crisis” is apparently that someone is trying to slam on the brakes—not that there’s a fiscal wall looming ahead.
The federal budget is on a treacherous path and Congress is to blame. Politicians are continuously delinquent on their obligation to be good stewards of our fiscal health, but the “irresponsibility” that most reporters and commentators raise their voices against is the risk of shutdown. These people are upset about the symptoms, not the fatal disease.
The ultimate blame rests on the shoulders of the American people. We routinely elect politicians without care for our fiscal situation. Politicians respond to incentives, and voters mostly signal that we won’t punish them for poor performance. The alarm is ringing. It’s time to wake up, America.
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