Over the last few weeks, as the deadline for the congressionally mandated budget cuts known as the “sequester” came and went, we got a taste of how difficult cutting federal spending actually turns out to be. The news is disconcerting: thousands fewer food safety inspections, some 70,000 fewer kids in early education programs, people with mental illness losing access to treatment, ships and aircraft going without maintenance … It’s a long and dispiriting list.
Yet as painful as the sequester might be, most policy-makers know it’s not the main event when it comes to our fiscal challenges. If you think of federal spending as a pie, by far the biggest slices go to Social Security and unemployment support, Medicare, Medicaid, and other health programs, which altogether make up well over half. Military spending accounts for about another quarter, while the next biggest slice, about 7 percent, is for interest on the federal debt. Far and away the biggest drivers of growth in the budget are Medicare and Medicaid. We cannot get control of federal spending without reining them in.
So if Congress and the White House are serious about tackling federal spending, then the piece they left out of the sequester — entitlement reform — must be on the table. But it’s been hard to tell from their actions that they’re really serious. Members of Congress have been taking to the airwaves for weeks to decry the sequester’s meat-cleaver approach to budget-cutting, yet most of them voted for it. That’s because they find it easy to demand cuts in federal spending in the abstract, but painfully difficult to cut specific programs.
This is why it takes extraordinary leadership to address our fiscal issues. Americans may bear some responsibility, but our leaders have not leveled with us about what it takes to get a sensible budget and put the economy on a path to recovery. I am hard-pressed to think of an example of government failure to match our political leaders’ inability to lead us to a solution.
Their prolonged fighting is causing businesses to hesitate, workers to remain in limbo, and an economy that needs a boost to continue to stutter. They are denying us the ability to invest in our future, promote economic growth, and deal with the many other challenges our nation faces. Let’s stop the blame game and get to work.
— Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.