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Brawner: Could you budget better than Congress?

Posted: July 12, 2014 - 10:15am
Steve Brawner
Steve Brawner

It’s been 13 years since Congress and the White House balanced the federal budget. Could you do better in 20 minutes?

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a Washington-based group dedicated to finding solutions to the country’s long-term debt problems, offers a budget-balancing tool for citizens, the Debt Stabilizer, at its website, crfb.org. According to the site, the Debt Stabilizer has been visited more than 600,000 times since it was created.

Users are given a series of choices to reduce the public debt from its current 78 percent of gross domestic product to a more manageable 60 percent by 2024. Historically, the debt has been 40 percent of GDP. At its current pace, it will reach 100 percent by 2035 and nearly 150 percent by 2050, according to the CRFB.

The public debt, currently $12.6 trillion, is the portion of the $17.6 trillion national debt that doesn’t include what the government has borrowed from itself, such as from the Social Security Trust Fund.

To reach 60 percent, you must come up with $4.84 trillion over 10 years using a combination of savings and increased tax revenues. That’s $1.54 million for every American man, woman and child, or about $6 million for a family of four. That’s how deep in debt we are.

The exercise shows the range of actual, difficult choices that would address the problem, as opposed to the much easier solutions many Americans mistakenly believe exist. Polls show Americans are aware the national debt is a serious issue. However, in a survey last year by the Pew Research Center listing 19 options for reducing spending, not a single one was favored by a majority.

Want to give it a shot?

The Debt Stabilizer starts with a page featuring unavoidable policy decisions, such as what to do about Afghanistan. Brief explanations are provided about the options. Eliminating war funding entirely after 2021 would save $820 billion. Choosing that gets you one-sixth of the way to $4.84 trillion.

The next page features a series of options regarding defense and foreign policy spending. Those include ending the military’s new Joint Strike Fighter plane, which is very late and far overbudget. You can either cut veterans’ benefits $50 billion, or you can increase them by $50 billion.

There’s an option to cut foreign aid by 25 percent – certainly a popular choice among Americans. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year found the average American believes foreign aid is 28 percent of the budget. It’s actually 1 percent. Cutting it 25 percent would save $150 billion.

The next page gives you a chance to cut various kinds of domestic discretionary spending — basically what the government doesn’t spend on defense, Social Security and health care programs. Want to create a moon colony? That would add $250 billion to the public debt. You can cut highway spending or increase it. Reducing food stamps to 2008 levels saves $140 billion.

The next pages cover Social Security, Medicare and the government’s health programs. Social Security and Medicare politically are very difficult to touch, as Rep. Tom Cotton is discovering in this year’s Arkansas Senate race, but together they are 38 percent of the federal budget. Leaving them completely off the table requires very deep cuts elsewhere and/or higher taxes.

By enacting all my spending cuts, I saved $3.5 trillion, which is apparently far more than the average American would choose. And yet as tough as I was, I still needed to find $1.1 trillion to stabilize the debt.

That means I had to increase revenues, which I did by increasing a few taxes, such as the gas tax to fix our roads and bridges, and by eliminating some big tax deductions. I saved $510 billion by gradually phasing out the mortgage interest deduction we all use, including me. That would be political suicide if I were running for office.

I more than met the goal. I lowered the 2024 public debt by $5.03 trillion, which would be 59 percent of the projected gross domestic product that year.

See if you can do better at crfb.org. Email me at brawnersteve@mac.com and let me know how it goes.

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