Americans are obsessed with weight loss but generally, they are getting heavier each year. The same is true for an obese federal budget. Congress pontificates about reducing our massive national debt of $30 trillion but each year it gets bigger. Books don’t help one lose weight, only by reducing food intake can weight be lost. The same is true for budgets. Bloviating against the national debt on cable TV will not reduce debt. Only by cutting programs and reducing laws can the nation reduce the national debt.
In 2021 our federal government spent $ 6.82 trillion in a $ 22.4 trillion economy. Simply, 30% of all economic activity in the U.S. is federal spending. Another $3.3 trillion was spent by state and local governments. Forty-five percent of our entire economy is government spending. The Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) informed Congress the growth of the national debt is unsustainable and a risk to our future. It’s now time to stop spending and start reducing the nation’s debt to ensure a sustainable nation for our children.
Six easy steps to taking $ 1 trillion annually off the federal spending scale
- Do not fund laws that have not been authorized. The easiest set of budget cuts would be to refrain from funding laws that Congress has not authorized. “In FY 2021 appropriations, the Congressional Budget Office identified 1,068 authorizations of appropriations, stemming from 274 laws, tolling $432 billion, that expired before the beginning of the fiscal year 2022.” Since House Rules prohibit such appropriations, it should be an easy savings of almost one-half trillion dollars.
- Review and vote on every expenditure of the Judgment Fund. The Judgment Fund is the mother of all slush funds. It is a permanent, indefinite, and unlimited congressional appropriation continuously available to pay money judgments entered against the United States and settlements of cases in or likely to be in litigation with the United States. As an indefinite appropriation, it is so secret that Congress no longer even debates what the amounts are for. The amounts are appropriated, no matter what the amount. The Department of the Treasury just pays the claims upon the receipt of paperwork. This is the fund that President Obama used to deliver $1.7 billion in cash, to Iran as a bribe to sign the Iran nuclear deal. Why should our government officials have billions in a secret fund to cover up illegal activity? Having Congress approve each judgment and settlement as it did before 1956, the U.S. could save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars by rejecting settlements the executive branch makes with its friends.
- Enact a fair, simple, tax code that focuses on raising money not legislating behavior. Another easy way to reduce the deficit is to get rid of the 8-million-word tax code and replace it with the 1913- four-page Form 1040. Few deductions and low rates, but everyone pays something, including the wealthiest. The benefit of this simple approach is it captures a greater amount of tax owed by closing the Tax Gap. The IRS defines the tax gap as the difference between true taxes owed for a given tax year and the amount that is paid. The gap is caused by the under-reporting of income, non-filing, and tax evasion. While the exact amount is unknown, the IRS estimates it to range from $574 to $700 billion, annually. A complex tax code invites under-reporting and manipulation, whereas failing to pay taxes in a simple system, could easily place one in a position of defending a fraud or tax evasion charge.
- Follow and implement GAO’s Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”). Congress mandates GAO to perform a GAAP analysis of federal spending and assets and provide recommendations to ensure the financial reporting by the agency is transparent and consistent. Every member of Congress should read these reports on how our money is managed and should implement its findings. One specific GAO recommendation is for the federal government to address the government-wide improper payments, estimated to be $175 billion.
- Congress should make a kitchen-table list of what programs are most important to our Republic. The amount of information available to Congress for making smart debt reduction decisions is overwhelming. It is time Congress puts these materials to use. A simple way to approach this task would be for each congressional committee to rank sequentially each program within its jurisdiction, with the most important programs having the lowest number. The budget committee would still allocate a budget for appropriations and the highest-priority programs will be funded first. The appropriation committees would work down the list until the revenue raised by taxes are expended. At that point, Congress would have to cease spending money on programs for which there is no longer any funding, e.g., studies of shrimp on a treadmill, or admit to the taxpayers, it wants to borrow money to fund programs of little value. This kitchen-table process of spending only up to revenues received could save another $1plus-trillion annually, even if Congress expended a few hundred billion on some lower value programs.
- Government must operate only for the public purpose. The issue of Congress giving away our money to private entities has been debated since the founding of the Republic. Opponents of giveaways argue taxpayer money can only be spent on matters enumerated in the Constitution. The government asserts it can spend taxpayer money on anything that promotes the general welfare. Continuing this debate is irrelevant since the courts have made it clear legislatures determine what is general welfare. Such a broad interpretation of governments’ ability to tax and spend has resulted in a massive increase in the national debt and a huge expansion of government.
To reduce spending, Congress must appropriate our money for matters that truly benefit the nation while preventing the direct redistribution of wealth to strictly private enterprises that wield influence in government?
The business-as-usual giveaway model is illustrated by the 2020 fiscal year appropriations which resurrected from the grave, billions of dollars in expired tax extenders and spread the benefits to distilleries, race-horses, and Nascar owners, short-line railroad, biodiesel blenders, and other favored industries. The tax credits were even made retroactive. The purchasers of the first 200,000 electric vehicles received up to a $7,500 tax break. Investors in Opportunity Zones received tax deferment on capital gains from for their investment in high-end apartments with yoga lawns and pools surrounded by cabanas and daybeds. Opportunity Zones were to benefit poor areas. The $350 billion dollars a year prescription drug industry benefitted from $64 billion in federal research funding. Flood insurance subsidies continued for beachfront property, notwithstanding that the program has $25 billion in losses, it is potentially liable for $1.24 trillion in claims while only collecting $3.5 billion in annual premiums.
While there is almost no limit to governments’ power to give away taxpayers’ money, there are historical precedents for limiting such gifts. In the mid-1800s, many municipalities and states used public funds to purchase stock in railroads being built across the continent. Many government entities were swindled out of large amounts of money. To prevent future losses, forty-six states enacted constitutional limitations preventing gifts to private entities. These restrictions were called “gift clauses” or “anti-donation” clauses or simply “government gift-prohibitions.”
The government gift-prohibition policies barred state and local governments from giving or loaning public funds to private corporations or associations for private undertakings. Initially, these provisions stopped government speculation with taxpayer money. With a $30 trillion national debt, Congress should enact the wise policies of the mid-1800s by prohibiting gifts, grants, loans, or the extension of the public’s credit to any private corporation, association, or private undertaking.
Such an action would serve to establish Congress as a fiduciary of the taxpayers’ money.
A few modest proposals for reducing the national debt. Is anyone in Congress willing to take up reducing the national debt challenge?
William L. Kovacs has served as senior vice-president for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, chief-counsel to a congressional committee, a partner in law D.C. law firms, and his book Reform the Kakistocracy is the winner of the 2021 Independent Press Award for Political/Social Change. His second book, The Left’s Little Red Book on Forming a New Green Republic, quotes from the Left on how to control society by eliminating capitalism, people, and truth.