A popular bit of political wisdom holds that you should never let a crisis go to waste. Budget expert Stuart Butler writes that the approaching debt limit deadline can be put to good use to pressure Congress to pay attention to the country’s long-term debt.
Back in March, Butler, long associated with the Heritage Foundation and now with the Brookings Institution, and Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, co-wrote a paper that argued for the creation of a budgeting process that defines the long-term spending plan for the major entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare. The pair called for a 25-year spending plan that would be reviewed and adjusted every four years, following presidential elections. Spending and revenues would be adjusted regularly by a bipartisan commission appointed by Congress.
The long-term spending plan — which Butler refers to as Quadrennial Report on Major Priorities and Goals, modeled on the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review — would allow for regular stress-testing of the nation’s fiscal plan for the future. Such tests, he argues, would make it harder to deny or ignore fiscal problems as they emerge, and easier to make adjustments to revenues and/or expenditures.
Butler points out that the debt ceiling has been used before as a vehicle to pass related fiscal legislation, including the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 and the Budget Control Act of 2010. And the need to create a better system for long-term budgeting seems pretty clear. Butler quotes the ominous warning sent by the CBO last March: “If current laws remained generally unchanged, the United States would face steadily increasing federal budget deficits and debt over the next 30 years—reaching the highest level of debt relative to GDP ever experienced in this country.”