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U.S. can't add to its enormous debt forever with no consequences

The Republican-led budgets from the House and Senate have reinforced how difficult it would be to balance the federal budget. Despite disagreements over what to cut, the budget plan would set the nation on the path toward a balanced budget.
The Republican-led budgets from the House and Senate have reinforced how difficult it would be to balance the federal budget. Despite disagreements over what to cut, the budget plan would set the nation on the path toward a balanced budget.
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The Senate’s budget resolution, which took until 3 a.m. last Friday to pass after hours of politically charged amendments and grandstanding, certainly won’t count for much.

The budget resolution is nonbinding. It doesn’t require a presidential signature because it doesn’t have the force of law. The real work of budgeting begins when House and Senate leaders get together to appropriate money to fund programs.

As for not counting for much, neither will the budget President Barack Obama proposed in February. That one, which also stands no chance of becoming law, assumes the economy has improved to the point where austerity no longer is required. We challenge any business or household budget manager to find a time when such a condition has existed within their realms of concern. Government may have the seemingly limitless resource of taxpayer funds, but it is offensive to hear that a deficit-spending culture can proceed without consequences.

If nothing else, the GOP-led budgets that emerged in the House and Senate have reinforced how difficult it would be to balance the federal budget. Already, Democrats and special interests are decrying the proposed cuts it contains to federal education programs as well as entitlements. It would repeal the president’s health care law, known as the Affordable Care Act. They don’t like how those cuts compared with increases in defense spending.

But while reasonable people may disagree over what ought to be cut, the budget plan would set the nation on the path toward a balanced budget in 10 years. It is not realistic in the sense that it never could pass a bipartisan process, but its aims are the right ones.

The plan brings to mind a recent syndicated column in this newspaper by Robert J. Samuelson. The ideal and rational solution, he said, would be to cut programs that aren’t effective. Entitlements such as Social Security should be restructured so that wealthy retirees receive smaller benefits and the retirement age is gradually extended. Other programs, such as Amtrak and farm subsidies, should be eliminated entirely.

“But both Obama and Republicans evade this unpopular exercise,” he said, adding that people want effective government. “But government is being strangled as the rising costs of baby boomer retirees reduce the capacity of other programs to fulfill their missions.”

We may not agree with all that the Senate’s budget resolution contains. Military spending has risen so much in recent decades that a strong measure of accountability and justification seems in order. Unlike the mindless austerity of “sequestration,” however, this plan seems to reflect a bit of thought.

Unfortunately, “thought” is about the extent of what the resolution will get.

We don’t discount the political realities that stand in the way of a balanced budget. Even some Republicans would have a hard time being re-elected in competitive districts should they support too many cuts to entitlements.

But rather than complain about how much would get cut by House and Senate GOP budget proposals, opponents now have the responsibility to tell how they would balance the books in a fairer way. Simply saying the nation can go on adding to its enormous debt forever with no consequences would be irresponsible.