To Close Fiscal Deficit, We Must First Close Our Leadership Deficit

To Close Fiscal Deficit, We Must First Close Our Leadership Deficit

By Sen. Tom Coburn - February 15, 2011

The President and Congress will never close our fiscal deficit until we close our leadership deficit. Our debt and deficit crisis cannot be solved without strong presidential leadership and this budget does not come close to reflecting the severity of the problems before us.

The only way to solve this problem is for the president and Congress to first educate the American people about the urgency of the problem, and then outline the shared sacrifices and hard choices that will be necessary to put us on a sustainable path. Everything has to be on the table. No one can protect their sacred cows. As a member of the President's Debt Commission, I voted to force Congress to at least debate a plan that would lower tax rates, close tax loopholes, cut discretionary spending, and reform Social Security. The plan included many elements I did not favor. Yet, it was a serious blueprint that would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion through 2020.

Unfortunately, the president's budget ignores most of his own commission's recommendations and treats some cows as much more sacred that others. For instance, everyone is for energy independence and alternative sources of energy, yet it simply is not credible for the president to single out oil and gas tax benefits while ignoring ethanol subsidies. For better or worse, for the foreseeable future we will have a fossil fuel based economy, not a corn, battery or solar-based economy. We should look at all tax benefits, not pander to special interests on either side.

Still, Congress does not need to wait on the outcome of the budget debate before making hard choices about priorities. Budgets are merely opening statements in a negotiation. Congress can make specific cuts, terminate duplicative and wasteful programs, and propose entitlement reforms whenever it chooses. We are the permanent standing debt commission and we need to get specific.

It's true that our debt crisis is mostly an entitlement crisis, but Congress will never have the credibility to deal with entitlements until we make serious cuts to discretionary spending. If earmarks have been Congress' gateway drug to spending addiction, discretionary spending has been its ecstasy. In other words, I've always believed getting to entitlement reform required securing other strategic objectives along the way.

David Brooks offered an interesting argument last week about the connection between discretionary spending and entitlement reform. We may not share precisely the same strategy, but he made this important point: 'If people who care about this or that domestic program fight alone, hoping that their own program will be spared, then they will all perish alone. If they have any chance of continuing their work, they will have to band together and fight their common enemy, the inexorable growth of entitlement spending.'

In other words, if special interest groups don't want their particular programs cut their best defense is to go on offense against those who refuse to touch entitlements.

I have offered three bipartisan bills in recent weeks that call on Congress to make easy, common sense spending cuts to the discretionary budget. My proposals call on Congress to end unemployment payments to millionaires, rescind funds for orphan earmarks and cut back on unnecessary printing costs in Congress. These are small steps. Yet, if Congress was serious about oversight we could identify 1,500 more small steps and take a giant leap toward deficit reduction.

I'm pleased my colleagues in the House want to cut spending by $100 billion. Once that bill passes the House and is blocked in the Senate we should not give up but redouble our efforts. We should cut until we are blocked and then challenge those who are standing in the way of deficit reduction.

One of the best ways to test Congress' seriousness about the debt and deficits is to force them to vote on the president's recommendations for program terminations. I'll force Congress to take such a vote at the earliest opportunity. Unfortunately, Congress has a history of blocking the president's spending reductions, as they did most recently in December when Congress refused to help pay for the tax compromise deal by accepting President Obama's program terminations list.

There are solutions to our debt crisis, but there are no easy solutions. It's time for the president and Congress to lead and discuss specifics in a way that reflects the gravity of the challenges before us.

Tom Coburn is a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma.

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