Opinion

Hey, Washington: It's time to be honest about America's spending-entitlement tradeoffs

This is a bipartisan problem with an obvious solution

No one likes paying taxes. Everyone likes receiving benefits. And our politicians have become thunderously dishonest in trying to convince Americans they can have it both ways.

For decades, the general trend has been for Democrats to try to preserve the federal government's existing spending commitments, especially on entitlement programs, while the Republicans try to keep the tax burden from rising much above recent historic levels. There have, of course, been some spending cuts here and tax increases there over the past 34 years. But for the most part, since Ronald Reagan was elected, Republicans have generally gotten their preferred tax rates while Democrats have kept their spending.

Many analysts argue that the balance is working. For instance, after the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the $486 billion deficit for fiscal year 2014 is now just 2.8 percent of the economy, below the 40-year average, many Obama fans crowed about shrinking budget deficits.

"The Tea Party is going to have to find something else to complain about," cracked budget expert Stan Collender.

But the longer-term fiscal projections are less rosy, with deficit reduction expected to stop sometime after 2015. The national debt is expected to climb from 74 percent of GDP to 77 percent in the next 10 years, and continue rising indefinitely.

For decades, Lyndon Johnson's welfare state has mostly coexisted with Ronald Reagan's tax rates. The price has been perpetual but mostly politically tolerable deficits. But what happens when the perpetual becomes intolerable? We really don't know. And it's a question our politicians are poorly equipped to answer.

Oh, you'll see a Simpson-Bowles plan here or a Paul Ryan roadmap there. And even their numbers can be debated. But by and large, Democrats promise to keep the benefits of government flowing to the American people while Republicans pledge to protect them from the costs.

When it comes time to run for re-election, candidates in the two major parties muddy the waters even further. Democrats insist they can keep the benefits flowing without raising taxes or increasing costs; Republicans usually maintain they can avoid tax hikes without trimming benefits.

As the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein observed, that was the dynamic in play during a recent Senate debate in Kentucky.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell — no mere backbencher — vowed that he would repeal ObamaCare, hammering the taxes and Medicare cuts that pay for it. His Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes said she would try to fix ObamaCare, but most of her proposed fixes would essentially require gutting the provisions intended to keep costs down, making her whole "plan" nonsensical.

Both McConnell's and Grimes' claims were more attuned to political perceptions than mathematical realities. Voters continue to broadly disapprove of the big thing called ObamaCare and dislike its costs, but people receiving specific subsidies or new benefits tend to like what they're getting. As Klein explained:

In May, a poll found that 57 percent of Kentuckians had an unfavorable view of ObamaCare, compared with 33 percent who had a favorable view. However, by 29 percent to 22 percent, a small plurality had a favorable view of Kynect, the state-based exchange that was set up as the vehicle to deliver insurance through ObamaCare.

In attempting to navigate this environment, McConnell has staked out a position that's incoherent — arguing that he wants to wipe out the awful entity "ObamaCare," while trying to create the impression that it wouldn't affect anybody's benefits. [Washington Examiner]

Of course, ObamaCare isn't the only government program over which politicians are trying to tiptoe around conflicting feelings from the American people. But it's illustrative of a major problem in our politics: Americans like receiving benefits. They don't like paying for them. You can't have it both ways. But lawmakers on both sides are almost eager to preserve the puerile fantasy that Americans can keep ordering that free lunch.

Some of this is human nature and cannot be avoided. Nevertheless, the parties could make the task of governing at least a little bit easier if they were more honest about both sides of the ledger. Is that really so much to ask?

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