In Budget Fight, Congress Consumed By Symbolism and Deception

The political stalemate leading to the so-called shutdown of the federal government has shown with devastating clarity how official Washington is consumed with symbolism over substance.


The symbolism begins with the word shutdown itself. Despite the noise and fury in Washington, the vast majority of Americans haven’t noticed any change in their daily lives because most of the federal government has not shut down. It is functioning as normal. Social Security checks go out, and the military is still on duty.

So, to hype the limited impact, the political theater revolves around the closing of a few War Memorials and playgrounds.

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The two political parties fight over symbolism because they both want to avoid talking about substance. On budgetary matters, both parties have spent decades misleading the American people about reality.

Our current problems can be traced to the 1960s and the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Johnson created Medicare and Nixon “reformed” Social Security. Those policies were well received at the time. Nixon, for example, gave senior citizens a 20 percent increase in Social Security benefits. Not coincidentally, that change went into effect just one month before Nixon stood for re-election.

Unfortunately, the benefits promised were never matched by sufficient taxes to cover the costs. For Johnson and Nixon, that was the beauty of it. They were both skilled politicians who gave benefits to their constituents while passing off the cost to some future generation. We are that future generation.

On top of that, the 1960s began with President Dwight Eisenhower issuing a stern warning against a military-industrial complex. He feared special interest demands for an extension of America’s military reach far beyond what was needed to protect our own nation. In the 21st century, Eisenhower’s words seem wise — almost prophetic — to most Americans. But our political elites still think we should engage in every global conflict from Syria to Iraq and beyond.

These three budget items — Social Security, Medicare and National Security — consume the majority of all federal spending today. That creates a substantive problem official Washington would prefer to avoid. There is no way to reduce federal spending without addressing all three of these programs.

The problem began to show itself in the 1970s and led Congress to make a decision that still haunts us today.

Rather than dealing with the reality that federal spending was set to automatically increase every year, Congress opted for deception. In a move that would have made George Orwell proud, they passed a budget law redefining a spending cut — if spending grew less than projected, they would call it a cut. This was the best of both worlds for a politician. More money was flowing into Washington every year but they could claim to be budget cutters.

This single act of deception has cost our nation dearly over the past four decades.

While news stories have talked of budget cutting and austerity, spending continues its ever upward ascent. Last spring, for example, we heard a lot about the sequester “spending cuts.” However, federal spending in 2013 actually increased by $107 billion. It is projected to grow another $93 billion next year.

The American people are ready and willing to engage in a substantive debate based upon the unsettling reality of our federal finances. We can only hope that our politicians will catch up soon.

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