Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rep. Kind Wrong on Comparison of Base Closings & Deficits

The LaCrosse Tribune reports:

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind called Monday for new measures to reduce the deficit and balance the federal budget.

Those included the creation of a bipartisan fiscal commission, or deficit reduction commission, that could recommend specific budget items to target.

The La Crosse Democrat said it should be modeled after the Base Closing Commis-sion, be-cause it often is too difficult for members of Congress to recommend cuts that could affect their own districts.

"I've been calling on the administration and my colleagues to embrace this idea," he told reporters in his La Crosse office. "We're trying to get more of my Republican colleagues to embrace the idea, too. If there's a concept that we're all in this together, through shared sacrifice, it might make this more politically feasible."

This may sound entirely reasonable to the ears of many, in reality this is nothing more than an attempt to disguise the continuing failure of leadership from those on Capitol Hill.

The fact of the matter is that we already have a bipartisan commission tasked with maintaining fiscal order. It is called the United States Congress. It's members are elected at regular intervals by the people. They are tasked with making our laws, including the collection and spending of revenues. They are not tasked with going to Washington DC to attend fabulous cocktail parties while another group of people, whom they have selected, do the actual work of governing.

But what about the comparison to the Base Closing Commission? Don't be fooled for an instant, there is simply no comparison. There are relatively few military bases, and the loss of a single base in a congressional district can have a tremendous local impact, so legislators fight to keep them open. A commission in this scenario gives political cover to legislators who have to answer to constituents back home about why their base was closed, but a base in a nearby district or state was not. If all we faced was the need to eliminate some discreet and localized points of spending, even if they were rather large, then perhaps a commission would be the way to go, but that isn't the case.

The Congressional Budget Office notes that about half of federal spending is mandatory, that is enacted into law and then happens automatically without being reauthorized every year. The biggest portion of this mandatory spending comes from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These are, of course, the programs that are most affected by the changing demographics of the country and the fact that health care costs continue to rise faster than overall inflation.

You know what else these programs have in common? They affect the elderly and those in poverty. And guess what, there are elderly people and poor people in every congressional district in the nation. Someone ought to tell Mr. Kind we already are all in this together. So if the real fiscal threat stems from circumstances that affect every single legislator, the case for a special commission tasked with making the tough choices simply falls apart.

I've singled out Mr. Kind for what I see as a particularly egregious example of making a reasonable sounding case for an unreasonable position, but it's not as if the Republicans in Congress have shown any more willingness to make the tough choices, and at times they have descended in to downright incoherence.

The fact of the matter is that this country has some difficult decisions to make in the not too distant future. These decisions are not the end of the world, but they are not at all easy. They involve deeply held notions about what our government "owes" us (hence the name, entitlements). Making them will require skilled leaders who are able to determine the best course of action and make a convincing case for their decision. I wonder how many currently serving in Congress are up to the task. Unfortunately, I fear it is not many.

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