The U.S. has a budget problem. In very simple terms, unless there is a course correction over the next decade the debt and interest on that debt will spiral up to the point that the federal government will be borrowing simply to pay interest on previous borrowing. This is the traditional precursor to a sovereign debt crisis and something that should not be acceptable in America.
The driving force behind the deterioration in the budget is the rapid growth of mandatory spending -- in common parlance, the entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and Social Security being the leading examples. In addition to threatening the very fiscal integrity of the federal budget, the growth of these programs is squeezing the ability to fund national security, basic research, infrastructure, education and the other basic functions of government that even the Founders would recognize. The president has codified this squeeze with the budget caps and sequester, but the basic phenomenon has been underway for years.
The diagnosis leads directly to the policy solution. Mandatory spending growth should be curtailed to control future deficits. It should be scaled back even more to allow for any increase in Pentagon funding or non-defense discretionary spending initiatives. Mechanically, any discretionary spending increases should be more than offset by mandatory spending cuts. The budgetary logic is indisputable and formed the foundation of the Ryan-Murray agreement two years ago.
Contrast the policy logic with the heated politics surrounding government funding bills. President Obama submitted a budget that recognized the threat posed to national security by underfunding the Pentagon, but chose to play politics with U.S. security instead of providing leadership to relax the caps and sequester. Senate Democrats have filibustered any and every attempt to pass a single appropriation bill -- a recipe for shutting the government -- in their attempt to simply spend more, offset none of it, and thus exacerbate the looming crisis. And Congressional Republicans have been content to use budget gimmicks (the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations account) to get the money to the Pentagon; an approach that hamstrings the military and makes effective planning impossible.
In these circumstances how can Washington dodge the threat of shutting down the government?
Republicans should accept the need to fund the Pentagon through the normal appropriations process and engage the Democrats in finding the elements that would make passage more bipartisan. They should also recognize that narrow issues like defunding Planned Parenthood, however legitimate, are better suited to dedicated legislation and have little chance of success in the general appropriations process.
Congressional Democrats should get serious about the danger posed by their beloved entitlements. Reflexive homage to the New Deal should not be grounds for crashing the U.S. economy, threatening the standard of living for millennials and beyond, and (most paradoxically) allowing those rickety, poor-functioning programs to fall under their own financial weight.
But most important, the White House needs to provide real leadership to broker a deal in Congress. The president needs to rise above his reflexive temptation to offer up tax-and-spend schemes that are simply non-starters, point fingers of blame at Republicans, and absolve himself of any responsibility. Seven years is long enough to substitute cheap partisan objectives for running the government.