Aleck Loker, Writer

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Failure of the Supercommittee

Posted by Aleck Loker on December 10, 2011 at 4:40 PM

The “Super-committee” failed, predictably. Now Congress will conceive of a way to avoid the built-in budget cuts in the FY 2012 budget, a budget that should have been passed before the end of last September. Congress never passed the 2011 budget; funding was provided through a continuing resolution that was crafted on the brink of government-wide shutdown last April—six months late. In spite of the pompous pronouncements of our politicians, the words of Ambrose Bierce, penned in 1911, still ring true: “Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles; the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

The Federal budget authority for 2011 was 3.5 trillion dollars. The Obama administration requested 3.7 trillion in spending authority for 2012, a 5.7-percent increase. The business of the Super-Committee was to find ways to reduce the Federal spending deficit by a total of 1.2 trillion dollars over the next ten years—120 billion dollars per year. In a budget of 3.7 trillion dollars, 120 billion represents about 3 percent. We can do better than that.

Consider the military portion of the budget: 750 billion dollars in 2010. We have approximately 200,000 troops stationed in 144 nations overseas with an additional 20,000 sailors and marines deployed at any given time according to the Cato Institute. 100,000 of those troops are stationed in Europe among our allies (England, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and others).

We could leave some to maintain security for our major embassy sites, but we could bring home the majority of those 100,000 and release them from service. The Cato Institute concluded their study of this issue with this statement: “Therefore, most of the 200,000 American troops stationed overseas and most of the 20,000 sailors and Marines performing overseas naval presence missions could be withdrawn without harming U.S. national security. With no major adversary on the horizon in the post-Cold War world, the United States does not need to police every portion of the globe for its rich allies.”

A recent AP poll of our military veterans (post 9/11) found that one-third of them saw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “not worth fighting,” and “a majority think that after 10 years of combat America should be focusing less on foreign affairs and more on its own problems.” With the veterans’ expert advice in mind, perhaps all of our troops should be returned to American soil, with the exception of our naval forces. The navy can operate autonomously at sea without dependence on costly alliances with regimes that fail to appreciate our principles of democracy and human rights. Not only could we save money, we could retain our own sense of human dignity by ending sleazy relationships with foreign despots.

Since Congress has failed to provide leadership in this most critical national priority by not reducing wasteful and unsustainable Federal spending, there is still one way to bring about the necessary reduction in outlays—an across-the-board cut for all departments of the Federal government. Although this is not the most intelligent way to cut the budget, it may be the only way. Imposing a 3-percent cut on each department would produce savings that would reduce the Federal outlay by 1.2 trillion dollars aggregated over ten years. We could probably do 6 percent, considering the amount of waste and unnecessary spending that occurs in Federal government departments.

I worked for the Federal government for more than 30 years and know how departmental budgets are constructed—no Federal bureaucrat would consider submitting an out-year budget request that didn’t include at the least a 3- percent (more commonly 6-percent) increase. The philosophy, a strong offense is the best defense, guided those budget requests. Clearly, that philosophy still pervades all government budget submittals. But we shouldn’t blame the department bureaucrats; they are just trying to do the best for their stakeholders—the citizens who benefit from their services. That is why we need more restraint at the topmost level of government: the presidency and Congress.

Individual departments within our government are managed by career employees of considerable ability. We recruit these bureaucrats from good universities give them a great deal of post-graduate training, paid for by the taxpayers. The bureaucrats are well paid to manage the government operations and they receive enviable benefit packages. They are fully capable of apportioning the across-the-board budget cuts in a way that has the least impact on their high priority programs, if permitted to use their good judgment in a politics-free environment.

What those bureaucrats will need is something that I fear we cannot provide them at this time—a Congress and presidency composed of statesmen. James Freeman Clarke said, “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman thinks of the next generation.” We currently have way too many politicians in Washington. Perhaps not much has changed in our nation’s capital since the time of Thomas Jefferson, who said, “If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour?” Well, one important aspect has changed: we now send three times that many to Congress and they are supplemented by thousands of unelected assistants while lobbyists whisper continually in their ears, plying them with unrecorded inducements to avoid thinking and acting as statesmen.

Truer words were never uttered about our current state of politicized government than this anonymous quote, “There are always too many Democratic congressmen, too many Republican congressmen, and never enough U.S. congressmen.” The failure of the Super-committee to reach agreement on a rational schedule of spending cuts illustrates this point. Congress will remain deadlocked and unable to effect the necessary fiscal restraint until a catastrophe, large and unavoidable, forces them to think as statesmen instead of as partisan politicians. That catastrophe cannot be very far in the future.

Thomas Jefferson also offered the following statements about the relationship between the government and the American citizens: “A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned--this is the sum of good government. I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

Jefferson would be appalled at the depth the hand of the tax collector has penetrated into the public pocket, and equally appalled at the degree to which the public has become dependent on and demands government support. We cannot continue to fund public entitlements that are spiraling ever upward. Cuts in the cost of entitlements must be part of the solution to the budget crisis that threatens to bring our economy down. We need super-statesmen, not a super-committee.

 

 


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