Note to Washington, D.C.: Limits and priorities


I didn’t join the grand anticipation of the speech called the State of the Union. I didn’t expect much, but I’m unwilling to believe a lofty speech written by someone else could somehow transform President Obama into someone his actions have proven he is not.

The State of the Union has acquired in recent decades all the trappings of a TV game show. There is far too much celebration of government officials who are supposed to work for you and me, competitive cheering, meaningless examination of trivia like the number of applause interruptions, and something new this year, commentators chatting about pairs sitting together, reminding me of the red carpet inquiries in Hollywood asking stars deep questions about their $30,000 dresses.

By my measure, more than 20 years ago the pep rally called the State of the Union sank below the dignity of having in attendance the members of the U.S. Supreme Court and military leaders. But that’s just me. In my view it could be improved as a written report – on a postcard.

I could understand the breathless countdown to the speech if it could be counted on to address the country’s most serious problems and proposed action. Once again, it did not.

I mean, of course, out-of-control federal spending. Our leaders in Washington spend the money they take from us, plus money they borrow from our children, like kids in a candy store with no limits.

Maybe it is our fault. We have never required them to limit and prioritize spending. By borrowing, they can spend any amount they wish.

Having no adult budgetary responsibility has allowed Congress to raid the Social Security surplus for decades to feed current spending while ignoring a looming funding crisis in the system.

Disaster approaches for Medicare and Medicaid as well. Year after year, the fools at our nation’s capital ignore fiscal Armageddon on the horizon to overspend more and more, none daring to breathe a word of cuts to entitlements and thereby wake the sleeping dog of very large interest groups with sharp teeth and votes.

All presidents and Congresses have spent too much, but the Obama administration has raised spending chutzpah to record heights.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates federal spending in 2011 will be $1.5 trillion in excess of the money we have available to spend – but we’re spending it anyway. That new record simply piles onto the gargantuan $14.5 trillion in debt we owe today. With President Obama tripling the deficit, under current spending estimates the national debt will escalate to $19.6 trillion by 2015, nearly double the $10.6 trillion debt when President Obama took office.

Annual interest on the national debt – simply paying for the privilege of borrowing – is currently $250 billion and growing rapidly, promising to become our largest annual obligation, eating gazillions of dollars that could otherwise go to defense, Medicare and … well, you get the point.

The modern American spending crisis threatens to strip the U.S. of its wealth, has already saddled our children with debt, will weaken our national security to the danger point, and break the most powerful economic engine the world has ever known. If ever there were a national crisis calling for adult leadership, this is it.

So what did the president propose in the State of the Union speech? Instead of the drastic budget cuts clearly needed, he called for even more new spending, er, “investments,” in new programs. Broader Internet access. Wind, solar and other renewable energy. Electric cars. High speed rail. New federal spending on education. A more friendly tax code.

Something for everyone. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But even if something is a good idea, that doesn’t mean government should do it. And even if government should do it, the first question should be, “Do we have the money?”

The president was offering the country candy when circumstances call for bitter medicine tasting much worse than spinach: budget cuts in everything.

Along with the candy, he wagged his finger and lectured about the government learning to limit spending to live within its means, just like an American family. Coming from the biggest spender in history, who was in the same speech proposing more spending, that didn’t pass the laugh test.

President Obama did propose to freeze discretionary spending for five years, which sounds good until you look a half inch below the surface and realize the discretionary portion of the budget is far too small to solve the problem, and that freezing at current bloated levels won’t help much when drastic cuts are needed. Cuts are needed everywhere, including defense, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and the hollering will be legendary.

Political heat will be so intense that neither Democrats nor Republicans want to be first to propose cuts to entitlement programs, even now at the edge of catastrophe.

On the Fox News Sunday TV pundit show, host Chris Wallace asked Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) about the Republican plan to cut back spending to 2008 levels, a 20 percent cut. Knowing the political heat involved, Wallace asked Boehner if he was prepared to cut 200,000 kids off the Head Start program rolls and cut back 27,000 FBI agents. Boehner said it would make a lot more sense to prioritize.

Put that word – priorities – together with limits, and maybe two simple words sum up the solution.

Limits and priorities. Our children learn to do it, but of course Washington, D.C., cannot limit and prioritize spending unless we force them to do so with a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

What if the president and Congress could not borrow? What if they knew every year they had to prioritize to spend only the money they have taken from us, and pay the political price for the spending priorities they set? What if a problem was so severe and expensive that taxes had to be raised in that year to pay for it, with the attendant political price for higher taxes? One side effect should be, at long last, rooting out duplication and waste as the search for spare dollars would intensify.

That’s what has been missing in Washington, D.C.: Limits and priorities, the self-control our kids have to know in middle school. If we ever do apply limits and priorities to federal spending, maybe we can then talk about something we never, ever hear discussed – paying down the mountain of debt we have accumulated.

Do you think the common sense of a balanced budget constitutional amendment will get legs and prevail over uncontrolled spending and more borrowing?

Neither do I.

[Terry Garlock is a Certified Financial Planner. He lives in Peachtree City and writes columns occasionally for The Citizen. His email is]