The folks in Washington are missing the point again.
I get it. The debt ceiling is something scary enough to maybe win some points in the war against dangerous overspending — a war Republicans didn’t seem to worry much about when Donald Trump was in the White House.
And I get that some of the things House Speaker Kevin McCarthy outlined this week as conditions for voting to raise the ceiling are good. Increasing work requirements for welfare might help the nation’s persistent workforce shortage problem, for one thing. Statista.com reports that 99.49 million Americans of working age are not active in the labor force. Let’s spur them back in.
But, really, we’re playing chicken with the debt ceiling (and thus, the nation’s ability to meet its obligations) over penny-ante stuff. No one will solve problems fighting over discretionary spending.
Even The Washington Post is urging a “reality check.”
“House Republicans have a habit of making it sound as if the budget can be fixed merely by trimming food stamps, Medicaid and other aid programs,” the paper’s editorial board said this week. “That’s not mathematically possible.”
It may sound like an old adage, but the truth is we have to start going after the big-money programs, or soon they will be coming after us.
Chief among these is Social Security. The trustees of that program came out with their annual report a couple of weeks ago. No surprises there. We’ve got about 11 years left before the old-age and survivors insurance fund is depleted.
You could almost hear the trustees collectively sighing as they urged everyone to quit dawdling.
“Implementing changes sooner rather than later would allow more generations to share in the needed revenue increases or reductions in scheduled benefits,” they wrote. “With informed discussion, creative thinking, and timely legislative action, Social Security can continue to protect future generations.”
Informed discussion? That implies something other than political talking points. Creative thinking? Timely legislative action? Who did they think they were talking to?
I’ve written about this before. More than once or twice, actually. There are doable solutions. The University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation did a study that found several changes to Social Security that both Republican and Democratic voters said they could support.
Let’s start with increasing the cap on the payroll tax that supports the program. This year, any income over $160,200 isn’t taxed at all. Raise that to $400,000, or maybe remove the cap all together. People from both parties agree on this.
Then, add that to a slight and gradual increase in the retirement age and a small tax increase, and they would have solved much of the problem.
Then they could tackle Medicare, whose trustees said the Part A Hospital Insurance trust fund has about eight years left until insolvency.
When that’s done, they could tackle the federal tax code itself, which is incomprehensibly long and complicated. William McBride of the Tax Foundation, an independent research group in Washington, told Congress recently that Americans collectively spent more than 6.5 billion hours doing taxes in 2022. Using wage and benefit estimates for the accountants who had to help with all of this, he estimated this equals about $313 billion each year in lost productivity, or 1.4% of GDP.
Congress decided recently to give the IRS an extra $80 billion, based partly on a report by Erin Collins, the national taxpayer advocate, who said the agency received 167 million calls in 2021 but was able to answer only 9% of them.
But maybe, instead of pouring more money into answering phones, Washington could simplify taxes so people don’t have to call in the first place.
Of course, none of these will be part of the negotiations over the debt ceiling because both sides have agreed to keep them off the table.
But, let’s be honest, that means what we’re watching in Washington is a lot like a family with a mountain of home repair needs, a broken car and tons of debt refusing to pay the family’s credit card bill until everyone agrees to eat less for lunch.
The problems are too big for small thinking, and I think a lot of Americans are getting wise to that.