The Fiscal Discipline Litmus Test, by John Edward

John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and who teaches economics at Bentley University and UMass Lowell, contributes the following column.

Sequestration is here. Our “leaders” in Washington cannot reach a budget agreement. They set up sequestration as a default option that would be so painful it would force them to make hard choices.

It did not work. Deciding what to cut is apparently more painful than indiscriminate cuts.
That is no way to manage a budget. This is no way to run a country.

We need a long-term plan to cut spending. The uncertainty of not having a plan is discouraging private investment.

In this column, I will offer a way to test if your representatives in Congress are serious about fiscal discipline. Serious discipline is required, because if we eliminated ALL non-defense discretionary spending we would still have a deficit in the federal budget.

One out of every five dollars the federal government spends is on defense. Defense or “security” programs are about two-thirds of discretionary spending. Adjusted for inflation we are spending about one-third more on defense than we were during the Eisenhower administration. That is without counting funding for the war in Afghanistan.

As stated by Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, “While a mindless approach to cuts like the sequester will significantly harm our readiness and security, military leaders agree that targeted, responsible cuts are both possible and necessary.” As stated by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, “Our national debt is our biggest national security threat.”

The problem is getting Congress to be responsible for targeting cuts that they see as hurting their re-election chances. We need to change that dynamic.

Even when the Pentagon says it does not need an alternative engine for the F-35 fighter plane, Congress appropriates a half-billion dollars anyway. The money was spent in twenty states and many congressional districts. As observed by Senator Tom Coburn (Republican from Oklahoma) in his book The Debt Bomb: “the military industrial complex has embedded itself in every congressional district and state across the country.”

The Coalition for the Common Defense collects defense contract data from government sources. They list 318 defense companies doing business in the former Massachusetts Fifth Congressional District that Tsongas represented before redistricting. In 2011, the government paid these companies $4.5 billion under 2,403 defense contracts.

Every member of Congress wants to be able to say they are bringing jobs into their district or state. They certainly do not want to be caught voting on something that will eliminate jobs back home.

As the voters who hire and fire Congress, we need to change the incentives. We need to apply the fiscal discipline litmus test.

Here is the test. Ask your Representative in Congress to identify a specific defense program they will support reducing or eliminating. The program must be one that spends money in their district.

Sequestration forces an 8 percent cut in defense spending. Reducing a $700 billion budget by $55 billion is a modest goal.

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (a.k.a. Simpson-Bowles) provided options that would have cut defense spending by much more. Former Congressman Barney Frank and Rand Paul proposed $960 billion of cuts over ten years. Even former Secretary of Defense Gates had a plan for cutting $100 billion, and observed “achieving substantial savings will mean overcoming steep institutional and political challenges – many lying outside the five walls of the Pentagon.”

When running for President, Paul Tsongas wrote A Call to Economic Arms: Forging a New American Mandate. He described the mandate as “committing ourselves to the actions necessary to achieve full economic recovery and unassailable competitive strength.” A full economic recovery that improves our competitive strength mandates a plan for when and where spending cuts should occur.

He went on to say, “Through the New American Mandate we will demand our leaders articulate the policies for this economic regeneration. Not just the comfortable policies, but the difficult ones as well.”

It is time to take our elected leaders out of their comfort zone. We need to give them an incentive to embrace the difficult policy decisions.

I posed a series of four questions to Representative Tsongas on the topic of defense spending and the budget deficit. The final question was the litmus test: “Can you identify at least one example of a defense program where significant spending occurs in your district that you would be willing to cut in order to reduce budget deficits?”

Representative Tsongas replied “I take seriously my responsibility to continue to closely scrutinize our military spending.” She cited reform bills that “rein in spending on programs that are over cost and behind schedule.” She cited legislation that improves the procurement process.

However, Representative Tsongas did not directly respond to my question. I followed up by posing it again. There was no response. So far, she has not passed the test.

If a majority of members in the House of Representatives were to pass the litmus test, we would realize significant reductions in defense spending. If elected officials supported cuts in their own district, it would be responsible reductions we could take seriously. I believe voters would reward anyone who passed the test.

Put your elected representatives and opposing candidates to the fiscal responsibility litmus test. Vote accordingly.

One Response to The Fiscal Discipline Litmus Test, by John Edward

  1. Bill C. says:

    WOW John… WOW!…

    Great Article… great approach… so simple yet so powerful. I’d be interested to know, after publication of your article, if there is an additional response from Rep Tsongas’ office.