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MALLOY: Spending cuts alone won’t solve deficit crisis

by CHUCK MALLOY
| April 4, 2023 1:00 AM

For the 30 years that Sen. Mike Crapo has been in Congress, he’s tried just about everything to bring federal spending under control, and yet it keeps getting worse.

In 1993, the year that he entered Congress as a freshmen House member, the national debt was a mere $3.3 trillion — which seemed outlandish at the time. Today, the national debt is more than $31 trillion, with no signs of slowing down.

That’s not all of Crapo’s doing, of course. Over the years, he has been involved with numerous deficit-reduction efforts. In 2009, he co-sponsored legislation to create a bipartisan task force that would study the budget and propose ways to reduce federal spending and the national debt. It was a sensible approach that went nowhere.

The senator is making one more stand as Congress prepares to debate over the debt ceiling — which actually is a discussion over whether the U.S. should take the unprecedented step on defaulting on its financial obligations. Crapo, for one, says he won’t agree to raise the debt ceiling without some serious reforms to the budgeting process. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is leading the negotiating efforts for Republicans, with Crapo and other senators in the middle of those discussions.

“Raising the debt ceiling without addressing federal spending will only further compound the problem and kick the can down the road until we approach the debt limit again,” he says.

Crapo has a couple of ideas for reforming the budgeting process, and he is going to the “oldies-but-goodies” file. One is zero-based budgeting, which was a failed idea from the Carter administration. The second is a balanced budget amendment to the constitution, which has been pushed by Republicans for decades.

Zero-based budgeting looks good on paper. As Crapo describes, “it would require all expenses within an agency to be analyzed and approved by Congress every six years, and … would mandate agencies recommend funding cuts at least two percent.” Defense spending would be exempted.

In the real-world application, zero-based budgeting was a bust and there’s no reason to believe it would work today. For one thing, it would require Congress to collectively give a damn about the national debt and that hasn’t happened in the 30 years that Crapo has been on Capitol Hill.

Which brings us to the balanced-budget amendment to the constitution, which should be a no-brainer. Idaho and most other states require a balanced budget.

“As I re-read the bill prior to its reintroduction, I was reminded of the common phrase, ‘it goes without saying,’” the senator said. “One would think this common-sense bill was unnecessary, or in other words, ‘it goes without saying.’ Unfortunately, it seems the federal government needs reminding to do what should be done and pass a balanced budget amendment.”

Of course, that will happen “when pigs fly.” Democrats won’t go for it, and there aren’t many people on either side of the aisle who want to open the door for a constitutional convention.

The sad truth is that deficit reduction will not, and cannot, occur simply by cutting discretionary spending. The problem — and Crapo knows it — is with mandatory spending, such as Social Security and Medicare. No … those “mean” Republicans are not plotting to chop off grandma’s Social Security and Medicare. But it’s ludicrous to think that we can live with the same rules through infinity. Crapo says the Medicare trust fund could be depleted by the end of this decade unless changes are made. President Biden has bullied Republicans into doing nothing.

“It is unfortunate that the president is playing politics with Social Security and Medicare. Both sides have highlighted that the trust funds need to be addressed and the earlier this happens, the better off everyone will be,” Crapo said. “There are several bipartisan members who are having serious discussions. However, I am noting some hesitation from more members to try to enact bipartisan solutions and instead score political points.”

And political points are about all we’re going to get as far as bringing the national debt under control.

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Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist and Silver Valley native, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.