We need action now, not talking points

STRAY THOUGHTS

By RANDY EVANS

It’s time for a quiz.

Based on comments from the candidates for president and the discussions on television networks, what is the biggest threat to the long-term security of the United States?

(a) A Donald Trump presidency.

(b) A Hillary Clinton presidency.

(c) The Clinton Foundation’s fundraising arrangements.

(d) Radical Islamic terrorists.

When was the last time Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — or the pundits on television — talked about fixing the federal budget deficit and the nation’s huge federal debt?

The United States’ fiscal health is an invisible issue that neither party wants to talk about. When Democrats and Republicans are cornered and have no way to avoid the “What would you do?” questions, they resort to unrealistic talking points.

Democrats say the solution is simply to bring more revenue into the federal government. Oh, and there a number of areas where they want the government to spend more money, too.

Republicans say the solution is to cut federal spending and reduce the size of the federal government, except for those areas where they want to spend more money, such as the military. They also want to cut taxes, guided by the belief that lower taxes will stimulate economic growth and lead to increased tax revenue.

Don’t pay attention to what the Ds or the Rs tell you. In reality, the solution is not either/or, it is some of both — some higher taxes, some reduced spending.

One of the smartest realists I met during my time at The Des Moines Register was Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition. That nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., is focused on fiscal responsibility by the federal government.

Here’s what Bixby says: “There is no magic solution, and to close the budget gap, it is not realistic to think that there will be no tax increases or that Middle America can be totally exempted.”

The problem facing the United States is simple. Congress and the president cannot cut their way back to getting the nation’s finances on sound footing. But our leaders also cannot rely on higher taxes to fix the mess.

Candidates are fond of telling us they favor eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Some talk about cutting foreign aid. Others want to reduce what they see as wasteful programs, such as food stamps.

But Bixby will tell you that interest on government debt, along with areas of the federal budget that are next to impossible to cut — Social Security, Medicare and unemployment benefits — are a much larger portion of federal spending than the so-called discretionary parts of the budget.

That discretionary spending is about equally split between the military and non-military areas. Those non-military areas include federal law enforcement, education, homeland security, parks, environmental protection, transportation, disaster relief, medical research and foreign aid.

All of the discretionary spending accounts for only about one-third of the budget — and the discretionary share has been shrinking for the last 50 years.

The federal budget deficit — the difference between revenue and expenses — has been reduced since President Obama took office in 2009, falling from $1.4 trillion at the height of the recession to $438 billion last year.

But there is bad news. That trend has ended. Without underlying fiscal changes, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects the government’s debt will increase about $8 trillion in the next 10 years from the current $19 trillion as the government spends more each year than it takes in.

Enter Trump and Clinton.

Clinton has proposed tax increases on the richest Americans. But she would use that additional revenue to pay for the cost her wish list of new programs, such as free community college tuition.

Trump is no better. He wants to cut taxes by the largest amount since Ronald Reagan was president. That would drain an estimated $9 trillion, with a “t,” from the federal treasury in the first 10 years.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, another nonprofit, bipartisan advocacy organization, says the national debt now equals 75% of the nation’s gross domestic product. That’s the highest it has been since World War II.

Clinton’s proposals would increase the debt to 87% of gross domestic product within a decade. Trump’s proposals would cause the debt to explode to 127% within a decade.

The United States is long overdue for an honest discussion by the presidential candidate and candidates for Congress about how we are going to solve our financial problems.

These candidates need to stop pandering to us and to their big campaign donors about how the problem can be solved by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, or how they will protect you and me, or their donors, from the unpleasant medicine that is needed to heal the U.S.’s finances.

They need to stop telling us that budget cuts alone will solve the problem or that tax cuts are going to magically fix the budget and debt. They need to stop deceiving their supporters by telling them that free college educations are possible.

Most of all, these candidates need to stop trying to blame the financial problems on the other party. Both parties are up to their elbows in this mess.

What we need now is a recognition that the problem must be fixed if we want to secure our nation. We need action. We don’t need more talking points.