Soft sand

Published 7:49 am Friday, February 5, 2010

If you haven’t personally experienced the situation yourself, you have surely witnessed it at the beach or perhaps in the middle of a snowstorm — those people who think their truck or SUV certainly must have more than enough gusto to make it through that batch of soft sand or deep, fluffy snow. With the best of intentions, these people set off with force to plow their vehicles over the yielding terrain.

And they get stuck.

What usually follows only makes it worse. They step on the gas. The vehicle doesn’t move. So they step on it again … only this time harder. In fact, they step on the gas so hard that tires start spinning and sand starts spraying everywhere. The more they step on the gas, the more they believe they will get “unstuck.” And the more frustrated they become.

The reality is that you have to be strategic about getting yourself out of “soft sand” situations. It takes time and a lot of patience. You have to lower the tire pressure, drop the truck into a lower gear and drive slowly. Stepping on the gas at full force and spinning truck tires does nothing but make a bigger hole and a longer ordeal.

Washington is in a similar “soft sand” situation when it comes to government spending. As it stands now, there is no effective incentive or mechanism in the annual federal budget cycle to encourage the government to save money. Congress can authorize as much spending as they want — and it absolutely does.

Washington’s spending cycle feels a bit like a truck stuck in soft sand spinning full force that won’t let off the gas. Only in this instance it is our grandchildren getting buried under the sand, and American taxpayers are the ones growing more frustrated.

It’s no question that Washington has an unshakable appetite for spending. In fact, since the 1970s, discretionary spending — the category of spending where lawmakers can make choices — has grown annually by between 7 percent and 8 percent. In the past 10 years alone, the total pot of money made available for discretionary spending programs has grown from approximately $581 billion in 1999 to $1.4 trillion in 2009.

Congress needs to bring the federal deficit under control. To do so, it cannot ignore the unprecedented growth of discretionary spending, which has outpaced mandatory spending like Medicare and Social Security over the past decade.

It’s time we took a tough line on federal spending. While I support entitlement reform through measures like the SAFE Commission and CARFA, I believe Congress must institute an enforcement mechanism now to ensure that Washington doesn’t continue its discretionary spending spree.

Last week I introduced legislation that would cut government spending by 10 percent each year for the next five years. That means by Fiscal Year 2015, federal discretionary spending will have been cut by 40 percent. Here is how the Tighten Washington’s Belt Act would get us there:

n The bill sets fixed spending limits for all discretionary spending over the next five years that are 10 percent less than the previous year.

n If during any of these years Congress breaches its spending limits, a mandatory across-the-board cut from all discretionary spending programs would be enacted to keep federal spending within its limits.

n The bill excludes pay and benefits for our active duty men and women in uniform and our veterans from the mandatory cuts.

If passed, the bill will most certainly cause discomfort on Capitol Hill. It will undoubtedly demand a psychology shift in Washington. It will mean Congress must prioritize. It will require that Congress not just spend less, but spend smarter. It will mean that bills packed with excessive, wasteful and duplicative spending can no longer fly through committee and over the president’s desk without direct consequences.

And it is exactly the deliberate, strategic solution that Washington needs to get itself out of soft sand.