I am a candidate in the May 15 Nebraska Republican Primary for U.S. Senate. The incumbent Deb Fischer is running for reelection. She is a nice lady and represents Nebraska well in many respects. For example she is on the Senate Agricultural Committee which is important to the Nebraska economy.
But there is one major way in which Fischer is falling down on the job. She is ignoring our enormous and out-of-control national debt. In fact she has voted twice recently to make the debt even worse than it already is. The new tax law increases debt by $1 trillion over the next ten years even after new growth is taken into account. The new budget deal could add an additional $2 trillion to the debt over the next decade. Fischer voted for both of these items. I want to emphasize as strongly as possible that this is why I am challenging her in the Republican Primary.
Of course, I have positions on other issues. For example, I have recently endorsed a ban on assault weapons. But for me there is a huge difference between fiscal and social issues:
Our national debt, now 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest) is projected to reach 109% of GDP in just 10 years and to keep increasing way beyond that. As interest rates rise to more normal historical levels, interest payments on the debt will increase by hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This will almost surely lead to a severe fiscal crisis in the relatively near future, causing huge damage to our economy, unless we make major changes in current policy.
Social issues are much different. They will eventually get resolved through the normal political process. Mass shootings in the U.S., for example, are intolerable to an overwhelming majority of Americans. If the NRA continues to oppose sensible changes in gun regulations, then many of its Republican supporters will eventually be replaced by Democrats who will enact the needed changes.
Conclusion. Our rapidly growing national debt will lead fairly soon to an existential crisis if left unattended to. The problem of mass shootings (as an example of a festering social problem) will be resolved by normal political processes.
I am a non-ideological fiscal conservative and social moderate. I agree with Republicans on some issues and Democrats on others. It seems to me that there is a lot of common ground between the two national parties and plenty of opportunity for working together.
The economy. Donald Trump was elected President with the support of blue-collar workers. He wants to help them out by speeding up economic growth. But the Democrats also want to give a boost to the working class. Why not lower the corporate tax rate to encourage multi-national companies to bring their profits back to the U.S.? Why not exempt small community banks from Dodd-Frank so they can lend more money to main street businesses?
Sustainable healthcare. After failing to repeal and replace the ACA, Republicans now have to accept that universal health insurance is here to stay even though it needs much better cost control. The popularity of employer provided health insurance makes single payer healthcare unacceptable to many. Two major changes are needed to lower healthcare costs. The ACA Cadillac tax should be replaced by an upper limit on the tax exemption for employer provided insurance. The Medicare Part B premium covers only 25% of the cost of that program and should be increased on a means adjusted basis.
Immigration policy. With the unemployment rate now 4.4% and dropping, a huge labor shortage is beginning to develop which will retard economic growth. We now need more skilled and unskilled immigrants alike. An expanded guest-worker program to meet the needs of employers should be created. Enhanced border security can be part of the mix.
Military spending. In a dangerous world we need a strong military defense. But there is a lot of waste in the Pentagon budget. Do we really need 800 foreign bases in over 70 different countries? Nebraska’s own Chuck Hagel identified $25 billion a year in military waste while he was Secretary of Defense.
Conclusion. Here are just a few ways that the two parties can work together to address some of our biggest national problems. Faster economic growth and fiscal restraint just make common sense.
Americans are a very fortunate people. We are protected by two oceans and friendly neighbors to our north and south. We are the strongest country in the world, both economically and militarily. We provide the world with cutting edge leadership in many areas such as technology, finance, energy production, scientific research and university education.
In short we live in a very successful, prosperous and complex society. We do have serious problems but they are being addressed by our elaborate legal and governmental processes and structures. Slowly but surely life in America is getting better and better all the time.
Given our country’s size, complexity and dominance in the world, it is inevitable that government will also grow in size and structure in order to take on new responsibilities. It is completely unrealistic to think that we can return to a more limited form of government that existed in the past.
When I say, then, that I’m a fiscal conservative, I am not advocating for less government but merely that we pay for the government that we have, in other words, act in a fiscally responsible manner.
And we are not doing this at the present time:
Our national debt, now 77% of GDP (for the public debt on which we pay interest), is the highest since right after WWII. It is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office that it will keep steadily getting worse without major changes in current policy.
The urgency of the debt problem is based on the fact that interest rates are now so low that it is almost “free” money. But interest rates will inevitably return to more normal historical levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket. Eventually this will lead to a Fiscal Crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
The solution to this problem need not be drastic. Federal spending is growing by 5% per year while tax revenues are growing by 3% per year. If we would just hold spending increases down to 2.5% per year, the federal budget would be balanced in a few years and our debt would start shrinking as a percentage of GDP.
Conclusion. Spending restraint, with very few actual spending cuts, is all that it will take to put our debt problem on a path to solution. Surely we are capable of acting in a fiscally responsible manner like this!
The Atlantic magazine has just released a remarkable essay written by the political commentator, David Frum, entitled, “How to Build an Autocracy.” Says Mr. Frum, “Donald Trump will not set out to build an authoritarian state. His immediate priority seems likely to be to use the presidency to enrich himself. But as he does so, he will need to protect himself from legal risk. Being Trump, he will also inevitably wish to inflict payback on his critics. Construction of an apparatus of impunity and revenge will begin haphazardly and opportunistically. But it will accelerate. It will have to.”
Let’s assume that Mr. Frum is correct that Trump’s top priority is to enrich himself. What will stop him from doing this? A recent column in the New York Times points out that:
54% of registered voters in congressional districts represented by Republicans view Mr. Trump favorably compared with only 42% who view him unfavorably.
In these same districts, 87% of registered Republicans view Mr. Trump favorably.
In other words, the Republican dominated Congress is unlikely to strongly oppose his sleazy and self-enriching behavior.
But there are other constraints on what he does in office:
As I said in a recent post in order for Mr. Trump to be reelected in 2020, he will need to substantially speed up economic growth in order to increase the wages of his key blue-collar supporters. He clearly wants to accomplish this.
On the other hand, the conservative Republican base, including its representatives in the House such as the Freedom Caucus, will simply not support huge increases in deficit spending for anything (except an emergency) including infrastructure, the military or unfunded tax cuts.
In fact, Rep Mick Mulvaney (R, SC), a deficit hawk, has been nominated to become the Trump Administration’s Budget Director. In March the debt ceiling will have to be raised. I expect the many fiscal conservatives in Congress to insist on significant fiscal restraint (e.g. a ten year plan to balance the budget) as a tradeoff for raising the debt ceiling.
Conclusion. Just because Republicans are tolerant of Mr. Trump’s personal behavior does not mean he can successfully ignore the strong Republican desire for fiscal restraint.
I am a non-ideological fiscal conservative. I don’t judge government as being either too large or too small. I just want to pay for however much government we do have without going into debt. Such an approach normally leads to political compromise whereby Congress tries to operate efficiently and hold costs down, only raising taxes as a last resort when it is impossible to squeeze any more low priority programs out of the system.
Such common sense used to be a fundamental operating principle, adhered to by both political parties. Unfortunately in recent years we have moved away from this model. In fact our public debt (on which we pay interest) has rapidly accumulated to $13 trillion, 74% of GDP, and will continue to grow much higher unless we strongly change our ways.
In some ways our current presidential campaign is following a conventional path. Both of the major Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, want to expand federal programs and raise taxes to pay for the new spending. The Republican Tea Party candidate, Ted Cruz, is a constitutional and social conservative and wants to cut back on government programs. The leading Republican establishment candidate, Marco Rubio, supports modest new programs, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and also modest tax reform to stimulate the economy. The wild card in the presidential race is Donald Trump. He is a secular populist with unconventional and even contradictory policy views. He not only leads the Republican field in most polls, he is steadily pulling ahead. He is doing all this by attracting huge support from working class white voters who have fallen away from the Democratic Party. In other words, he is potentially expanding the Republican base and therefore should be taken very seriously. Question. Can a fiscal conservative (who just wants to balance the budget!) but who also wants to address the very serious social problems in American society, support a Donald Trump candidacy for president? I am struggling with this question. Stay tuned!
A tentative budget deal has just been reached by Congress and the President to 1) suspend the debt limit until March 2017, and 2) loosen the budget sequester caps by $112 billion over the next two years. $80 billion of the increased spending will be balanced by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget with details to be worked out later by various appropriations committees. Specifically:
The current debt ceiling of $18.1 trillion will be lifted until March 2017, after a new president takes office. This will allow an expected increase in the debt of about $900 billion to take place over the next 1½ years.
Both military and discretionary non-military spending will increase by $40 billion each over the next 2 years with the military receiving an additional $32 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations.
The problem is that such a deal essentially just maintains the budget status-quo. It does nothing to begin shrinking annual deficits in order to put our accumulated national debt on a downward path as a percentage of GDP. Our current debt of 74% of GDP is very high by historical standards and simply must be brought down significantly in the near term. As I explained in my last post, Congressional Republicans, with majorities in both the House and the Senate, should be able to apply much more leverage than was used in the deal just reached, as follows:
Yes, extend the debt ceiling for two years. We need to pay our debts. But insist on spending discipline from now on.
Allow only brief temporary budget extensions at current levels until a plan is adopted to put deficits and debt on a downward path. The Republican ten year plan for a balanced budget would be a good place to start.
It’s time for fiscal conservatives to stand up and be counted!
Is it possible for the U.S. to effectively address its enormous debt problem in today’s contentious political environment? Two weeks ago I discussed in “America’s Fourth Revolution” why the political scientist James Piereson thinks this is impossible. He is very persuasive but I think he is too pessimistic. Since then I have discussed several different things we should do to turn around this perilous situation:
If spending for just Medicare and Medicaid (two very expensive entitlement programs) alone fell by 25% over ten years, as a percentage of GDP, and then stayed in line with GDP after that, the U.S. would actually have a budget surplus in 2040.
Just recognizing the magnitude of our debt problem would do wonders in public awareness.
If the Tea Party were able to grow beyond a protest movement and unite the country behind a majoritarian agenda of work, mobility and opportunity, it would be much more effective in achieving its fiscally conservative goals.
Another significant way to save money, and get better results at the same time, is to turn over more and more programs to the states. A good way to do this is with block grants to the states for federal programs in such areas as welfare, education and Medicaid. This would give the states more flexibility to get the job done in an efficient and cost saving manner.
What we need to do to turn our debt situation around is to greatly shrink our annual deficits below their current level of about $450 billion per year. If the debt is growing slower than the economy, then it will shrink as a proportion of the economy. This is what happened after WWII (see above chart) and it needs to happen again now!