Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A temporary dodge of long-term issues

The economic crisis might be over. The Senate has voted 81-18 for a compromise plan to get the federal government running again and raise the debt ceiling so that economic chaos doesn't befall the world by the weekend. Assuming the recalcitrant House of Representatives can find a majority in favor of the Senate bill, the crisis will be over.

Popular opinion has it that the Republican Party lost this battle. Speaker of the House John Boehner said as much. The pointless crusade against the Affordable Care Act resulted in the shutdown of the government and a too-close brush with default on the national debt, but the GOP got no concessions on health care. They got a temporary continuation of the funding sequester, but the entire Senate bill is temporary. Funding of the federal government will go on for a couple of months. The debt ceiling will raised enough for the government to pay its debts a little longer. But the long-term problems in Washington have not been addressed.

The Republican delegation had a point that the government cannot continue on its path of borrowing to pay for 30 percent of its expenditures each year. Our deficit spending tops $1 trillion a year, and the federal debt has climbed to about $17 trillion. A bipartisan conference from both houses of Congresses is supposed to meet to resolve this issue in the next few weeks. Such conferences have been tried before. The Bowles-Simpson Commission offered a reasonable but painful route to solvency, but neither the president nor Congress wanted to take the medicine. A super committee two years ago failed to come up with an acceptable budget plan, resulting in the "sequester," which was never supposed to go into effect but only be a frightening consequence no one would allow.

Each year of trillion dollar deficits makes a solution even harder. Compromises must be found in "entitlement" programs such as Social Security, Medicare and programs for the poor. These programs are growing faster than the government's revenue can keep up. Federal money can be found in almost every governmental activity, from municipal housing programs to state highways to farmers' choice of crops. Reducing the federal role in many of these areas could help reduce the deficit. The rate of increase in Social Security and Medicare can be reduced without severe consequences for beneficiaries.

And broader, more sensible taxes should be part of the solution. Fixing this problem will cause pain that should be shared by everyone, and small tax increases can ensure that everyone pays.

To prevent future crises brought about by members of Congress who have carefully drawn safe voting districts, Congress should require that congressional redistricting follow municipal and county boundaries wherever possible, that voting blocs not be packed deliberately to achieve sure victories for one side or the other and that truly bipartisan independent commissions, not state legislatures, draw the congressional districts. With a little more camaraderie and a little less electoral certainty, members of Congress might discover that compromise is better than stalemates.

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