A political cartoon hit my inbox this week. It shows two bedraggled men sitting on a park bench. One of them says, “We’re waiting for Godot, and the recession.”

You may find the reference obscure, so I’ll explain briefly. The play, “Waiting for Godot,” written, originally in French, by Irish writer Samuel Beckett, features two such men waiting for a man named Godot, who they’re not sure they have ever met before. 

Spoiler alert! He never comes.

Like many Americans, Utah’s youngest member of Congress, 42-year-old Blake Moore, isn’t sure whether a recession, like Godot, is coming. The economy’s 2.9% growth in the quarter that just ended is not the logical result of high inflation, rising interest rates and layoffs at large companies. Neither is the nation’s current 3.5% unemployment rate. Forecasts of gloom and doom seem to remain as only distant gathering clouds, at least for now.

But he is sure what will happen if the United States doesn’t do something about a national debt that just zipped past $31.4 trillion, or a looming crisis in Social Security and Medicare. It won’t be good.

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Moore, the youngest of the state’s four representatives and two senators, says he is the first-ever Republican from Utah assigned to the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees those programs and more, and which has jurisdiction over all taxes, tariffs and other ways for the government to get money. 

Which is why I called him this week to talk about the nation’s fiscal problems. I wanted to know his strategy.

Some people might look at the debt, which has grown nearly six times as large as it was in 2000 and which is larger than the entire output of the nation’s economy, and feel a sense of hopelessness. Not Moore. He understands the feeling, but doesn’t want to give in to it.

“The hopelessness of it is actually why I ran for Congress,” he said. “The more I’m concerned about the challenges, the more amped and excited I get.”

Being an optimistic conservative in Washington, he said, is a big part of his strategy. “Being a downer all the time will not get the job done.”

But whether you’re up or down, the job of digging the nation out of its ever-growing fiscal hole is not easy. Efforts to do so continually run the gauntlet of powerful lobbyists, tradition and the system itself, in which voters seem to be perpetually dividing Congress more or less evenly along party lines.

But it helps to control the House, and to have a bargaining chip.

What explains the surge in U.S. national debt during President Trump’s time in office?

Right now, House Republicans believe their vote to raise the debt ceiling is a valuable chip to force concessions from Democrats. Already, Moore said, President Joe Biden’s decision to remove the COVID-19 national emergencies in May was one victory in this process. Republicans wanted it immediately, but May will work, too, he said. 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy also is looking for cuts to domestic programs and a bit from defense, as well. Utah’s 1st District has traditionally been the steward of Hill Air Force Base, and Moore lists its preservation as his top priority. But, for him, every line item comes back to his view of the nation’s debt. 

“The biggest threat to our military is a growing debt,” he said. Runaway spending overall is “the nation’s biggest threat so far.”

But you have to think big to erase trillion-dollar annual deficits and get at that $31.4 trillion national debt. Any economist worth his or her mechanical pencil will tell you that discretionary programs are penny-ante stuff. Cuts to them won’t make a dent in the debt. Moore wants to examine programs that receive mandatory spending, and reform or end them, but he knows Washington needs to eventually rein in the big ones — Social Security and Medicare, in particular.

He also knows it can’t all be done now. But he believes if Republicans can unite and hold firm, the concessions they win now in exchange for a debt-ceiling hike could be a catalyst for greater things in coming years.  

Many Americans, he believes, don’t understand the dire situation that is approaching quickly. Trustees said last May that the Social Security trust fund for old-age and survivors’ benefits will run dry in 2034. After that, it is projected to be capable of funding only 77% of promised benefits. And Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Fund is projected to run dry in 2028.

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The nation’s debt is exploding just as baby boomers retire.

In 1940, there were 159.4 workers for every Social Security recipient. Today there are 2.8, according to the Social Security Administration. This is an unfortunate byproduct of a dwindling birthrate, compounded by how Americans are living longer. Moore has written that Social Security needs to “modernize to be compatible with today’s demographic realities.”

That would involve allowing private sector investments and personal accounts using Social Security funds, giving younger workers greater control over their retirement savings, he said.

Any such reforms are bound to awaken the loud voices of interest groups who claim Republicans are out to destroy the programs and put people at risk. 

Which leads Moore to say, “There is not a single Republican who doesn’t support and appreciate or want to strengthen Medicare and Social Security.” But carrying on as we are now won’t help either program. “This isn’t about cutting people’s benefits, it’s about ensuring people have them.”

Social Security is stuck in a 1935 model, when people didn’t have access to capital markets the way they do now, he said.

Moore uses history as a guide to remain hopeful, noting how Republicans and President Bill Clinton forged compromises that balanced budgets at the end of the 20th century, even as he acknowledges that politics have since moved to a darker place.

He supports Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s Trust Act, which would create bipartisan committees to explore ways to reform each federal entitlement program. It’s a plan that hearkens to the commission formed in 2010 and headed by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican, and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, a Democrat. 

But while the final proposal by Simpson-Bowles never got enough commission support to force a vote in Congress, it relied on a combination of reforms and cuts, as well as tax increases that are anathema to current conservatives.

Moore, like many in his party, doesn’t want that. 

“I don’t believe we have to raise taxes to get out of this,” he said. “If you wanted to balance the budget tomorrow, yes, you would have to raise taxes, but that would also slow the economy.”

Sustainable economic growth would raise revenue naturally, Moore said. He wants to find ways to get the people who, for whatever reason, have decided to leave the workforce to come back, easing labor shortages and fueling expansion.

A 4% economic growth rate, he said, is not out of the question.

Of course, Moore is not the only member of Utah’s all-Republican congressional delegation to have ideas about fiscal responsibility. In addition to Romney’s Trust Act, Sen. Mike Lee has been outspoken on fiscal matters, most recently co-authoring a letter to the president demanding spending cuts in return for a vote to increase the debt ceiling. Rep. Chris Stewart introduced a bill that would require the president, in his annual budget, to “provide an estimate of the per taxpayer cost of the deficit and of the public debt,” according to his website. During the pandemic, Rep. John Curtis sponsored the Deal with the Debt Today Act, which would require any new emergency or disaster spending to be offset over a 10-year period, keeping it from adding to the debt.

Romney sits on the Senate Committee on the Budget, Lee is on the Senate Joint Economic Committee and Stewart is on the House Appropriations Committee.

But Moore’s recent appointment to Ways and Means and the House Budget Committee has elevated his influence over fiscal matters.

When I mention that Republicans only added to the debt problem when they controlled all three branches of government under President Donald Trump, he disagrees. While he hadn’t yet been elected during those years, Moore said Republicans made some progress cutting discretionary spending but were hoping to do more concerning the large debt-driving entitlements during a second Trump term and with a Republican Congress, neither of which materialized.

Being an optimist doesn’t mean Moore doesn’t appreciate how hard it is to push important changes through Congress. He is particularly irritated by some Republicans who don’t hold firm to sound economic principles, or who support continuing resolutions instead of writing budgets.

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“A lot of people here vote ‘no’ and hope for ‘yes,’” he said. “I don’t have a ton of patience for that.” He sees party unity as necessary for success. 

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And yet, today’s Republican Party can do little without more power. A Democratic-controlled Senate is likely to oppose a lot of what the Republican-led House wants to do, and Biden still wields a veto pen.

Ultimately, Moore hopes small successes now will lead to big election successes in 2024 and beyond. 

Whether that becomes another elusive visit from Godot in a divided nation remains to be seen.

But what Utah’s youngest congressman gets exactly right is that it would be far easier to tackle debt and reform today than it will be when a day of reckoning forces the issue.

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