Master the balancing act

Taming the federal budget will require courage and sacrifice

A group of area citizens converged at Augusta State University recently to balance the federal budget.

Over lunch.

The news is not good.

Given the opportunity to cut as much as they could out of a projected $13.6 trillion federal deficit over the next 10 years, five groups of about five citizens each fell far short: The best that one group could manage was $7.18 trillion. Several groups cut as little as $2 trillion.

And that was after deciding to raise taxes to levels that, in the real world, would be 1) very unlikely to pass Congress and 2) very likely crippling to the economy.

If an amalgam of level-headed citizens from the Garden City can't balance the budget, how can we hope our elected officials will -- given the political barriers and siren song of spending in Washington?

Indeed, the budget-cutting exercise at Augusta State March 21 -- designed and directed by the nonpartisan Concord Coalition and hosted by Congressman John Barrow, D-Ga. -- was intended to illustrate just how difficult it will be to get this nation's finances in order.

Judging from what we saw -- The Chronicle's editorial department participated -- we can tell you with some authority how hard it will be.

But guess what: Financially, practically and morally, we have no choice.

We appreciate what the Concord Coalition has done with these budget-cutting exercises, which the balanced-budget think tank stages across the country. And we applaud Congressman Barrow and his staff for bringing it to ASU. Everyone who participated left inspired and enlightened.

We do wish the exercise gave participants more than two hours -- and more flexibility. Trillion-dollar decisions were made by the participants sometimes in seconds, and there was no option of lopping off entire departments of the government.

Nor was there the time or template for a philosophical discussion on exactly what it is the federal government should even be doing. We believe any wholesale assessment of today's federal budget leviathan should start with the Constitution itself. It delineates, in more detail than most folks realize, what the government should and should not do.

On the latter, for instance, the 10th Amendment says, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Intuitively, you know right there that today's federal government is doing way more than ever intended.

Besides the short laundry list of items it delegates to Congress, we think the Constitution also contains, in its preamble, a beautiful blueprint for thinking about what the federal government should do: "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence ..."

(Unfortunately, it also says "promote the general Welfare" -- which has been used as justification for Congress to do whatever it wants to, notwithstanding the specific list of what it's allowed to do and the 10th Amendment admonition that everything else is reserved for the states or the people to do.)

The point is, the budget-cutting exercise demonstrates quite clearly that we won't be able to balance the books unless we're willing to completely rethink what we depend on the government for -- and accept the painful consequences.

For example, in the small group The Chronicle was in, the members wouldn't even consider cutting funding for the arts. Folks, when we're already $14 trillion in debt and are projected to add another $13.6 trillion over the next 10 years, such luxuries are going to have to be the first things we cut.

About all that debt: Our other lament about the budget-cutting exercise is that it was never explicitly explained just how immoral it is to cut just $2 trillion or even $7 trillion out of a $13.6 trillion deficit. We do wish the group had been told -- beforehand would've been nice -- that the $27.6 trillion in federal debt 10 years from now will be left on the doorstep of future generations.

There were some wide-eyed ASU students in the room who needed to hear that.

But meanwhile, students in Wisconsin and Georgia and elsewhere have massed at their state capitols to decry modest state budget cuts. Somebody needs to show them what the books look like in a few years!

Finally, some of their peers are trying: This week, a group called Young Americans for Liberty plans to erect 40-foot-long "National Debt Clocks" on some 75 college campuses across the nation.

"We want fellow students to know just how big our generation's share of debt is, and that Congress is spending away our future," Ani DeGroot, Young Americans for Liberty chapter president at the University of Iowa, said in a statement. "Students stress about paying back their college loans, but they don't realize their portion of the national debt is even bigger."

Yes, it will be hard to balance the budget. But we ask: Are we to believe that the country that won two world wars -- three if you count the Cold War -- can't muster the courage to stop spending their children's money in 10 years' time?

Come on.

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