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Putting Off The Hard Choices, Again

Republicans and Democrats fight about a lot of things, but one thing they agree about: When in doubt, put off the hard choices.

If the $17 trillion national debt wasn’t proof enough of this, then more evidence came in the form of the budget deal worked out between Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and other negotiators this week. Congress was expected to vote on it between the time I write this and the time you are reading it.

The Bipartisan Budget Act would increase spending by $63 billion over the next two years by reducing the cuts made by the sequester. That’s the automatic mechanism that went into effect when lawmakers couldn’t agree on cuts as part of the 2011 fiscal cliff debate.

Those cuts have, by Washington standards, fairly significantly impacted the military and a number of government programs, some of which are actually kind of good. You don’t have to look hard to find an institution in your community that’s been affected by them.

The act supposedly recoups that money with additional spending cuts and a few fee increases that together total about $85 billion. It does this, however, over a 10-year period, and that’s where the problem lies. It’s not hard to predict what will happen over time because the same thing just happened now. Congress, faced with cuts affecting their voters versus putting off the hard choices for later, will probably keep choosing door number two.

The Bipartisan Budget Act does have its good points. The sequester is a clumsy way of reducing spending that has impacted important programs, including needed research. If this agreement helps Congress break the cycle of governing by crisis, that would be a good thing. These government shutdowns, debt ceilings and fiscal cliffs are rattling markets and calling into question the full faith and credit of the United States.

By actually sitting across the table from each other and talking, Ryan, Murray and the other negotiators have proven that Congress can at least function as a deliberative body.

But the agreement increases short-term spending while doing nothing to address the long-term problems that are driving future deficits — government health care programs, Social Security and federal pensions, defense and an outdated tax code. Remember, those future cuts won’t reduce the $17 trillion debt — now equaling more than $50,000 for every American adult and child. They will just reduce, by a little, the rate the debt continues to rise.

Compare what Congress is doing to a family that is going deeply in debt but is not yet bankrupt. A responsible family would carefully study where it’s really spending its money and then divide that into four categories; must keep, nice to have, probably can go and waste. Then it would begin reducing the last three. Meanwhile, it would determine if its income should be increased and, if so, how.

This would not be easy. The adults would argue. The children would complain. Outsiders would not accept no for an answer and would continue to entice the family to spend more. The family would experience many short-term failures. But, with discipline, it could steer its path from bankruptcy to solvency.

Responsible parents would not panic, but they would not take 10 years to make the easier choices while completely avoiding the harder ones. They would recognize that a path to bankruptcy requires immediate attention even if all the solutions don’t present themselves immediately.

They would do this because they would not want their children to grow up in a place governed by debt. So why should Americans let Congress do the same?

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

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