It's time to make Congress prove it can curb its out-of-control spending habit


Even Americans who don’t see eye to eye on every issue agree on one thing: our elected officials shouldn’t live by a different set of rules than the rest of us do.

A perfect case in point is spending. What happens when you and I try to live beyond our means is very different from what happens when lawmakers do the same thing.

If you or I were to overspend, it wouldn’t be long before warning letters and calls from creditors started coming. Then our paychecks would be garnished. Eventually, our car would be repossessed and our house taken over by the bank.

In short, our little spree would be over – and fast. But that’s not the way it works in Washington.

There, the debt is continuing to pile up – $21 trillion to date, higher than it’s been at any point in our nation’s history – but no creditor calls or shows up. Lawmakers simply return the next year and make the problem worse.

The simple truth is Washington is bankrupting the country and robbing future generations of Americans. It’s time we changed that. That’s why I think we should make Washington work like the rest of us do.

But that may be about to change, thanks to President Trump’s request that Congress cancel (or “rescind”) $15 billion that hasn’t been spent yet.

Now, a “rescissions package” that cancels $15 billion in spending doesn’t sound like much when you’re $21 trillion in debt. Even if the president were to follow up this request with additional ones (and he certainly should), only a small hole will be patched in our listing ship of state.

But we have to start somewhere.

And a successful rescission package will send a strong signal that, after decades of failed promises from politicians, Washington’s out-of-control spending problem can be fixed.

In fact, it has to be fixed. See, when it comes to Congress, we’re the creditors. Those are our tax dollars being mismanaged and misspent. It’s our children and grandchildren who will assume the burden of all the debt that is accumulating today.

So while rescissions aren’t a magic-bullet solution, they’re an important first step.

Just as an overextended family might cut up its credit cards, Congress needs to show that it can finally curb its out-of-control spending habit. And if lawmakers can’t do it with $15 billion in unspent money, then their addiction is even worse than it appears.

The simple truth is Washington is bankrupting the country and robbing future generations of Americans. It’s time we changed that. That’s why I think we should make Washington work like the rest of us do.

Just imagine the impact of a very different dynamic: What if the total amount the federal government could spend in a given year was directly linked to how well our economy was doing?

We could forge that connection if the government’s total budget (including all spending and special-interest tax loopholes) was limited to a fixed percentage of the nation’s wealth (defined as gross domestic product, or GDP).

Under such a model, the government could only spend more money if the economy grew. And if the economy didn’t, the government would have to cut back on its spending.

That’s the way my family operates, and I bet it’s how yours does too. When our income goes up, our spending can too. And when our income shrinks, we make do with less. Millions of Americans live this way every day, but in Washington it’s unheard of.

Now imagine that if the government ever spent more than was allowed (except in cases of declared economic or military emergency), across-the-board cuts would be imposed – with one important difference: instead of starting with cuts to the programs we as citizens use, the cuts would begin with the salaries of the president, the Vice President, and every Member of Congress.

That, too, is how the rest of America lives. After all, who among us gets paid if they don’t do their job? Under this model, our elected representatives would face the same workplace pressures those of us with a job do every day – perform or get no pay.

In such an environment, lawmakers would surely take greater steps to grow the economy and enable businesses to create more jobs. Infrastructure repairs and energy development would move to the top of the list. So would much-needed fixes to the problems that keep so many people from being able to work, like failing schools, stifling regulations, and anticompetitive licensure laws.

These procedural reforms may seem like a stretch but, as I said earlier, we’re the creditors here. If Americans were to demand such changes, they would happen.

Restoring fiscal discipline is a tall order, but it can be done – and a rescissions package gives our nation the start it needs. Washington, America is watching.

Kay Coles James is the president of The Heritage Foundation.



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