Just weeks after his historic inauguration in January of 2009, President Obama stood before a Joint Session of Congress to discuss the nation's economic woes and to outline his plan for recovery.
Speaking of a growing deficit and a costly recession, President Obama said, "Given these realities, everyone in this chamber -- Democrats and Republicans -- will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars. And that includes me."
The president's call for shared sacrifice was admirable, and not without precedent. Americans have a long tradition of banding together to overcome the challenges of war, depression, and hardship. Had President Obama followed his rhetoric with bold action to restrain spending and reduce deficits, the American People would have surely risen to the occasion.
Instead, he did the opposite.
The ten-year budget President Obama soon proposed called for breathtaking increases in spending and borrowing. His budget plan put us on track to double the national debt in five years and triple it in ten, mortgaging our children's future to fund hundreds of bloated government programs. It was the antithesis of sacrifice.
In a time when families, businesses, and state governments were tightening their belts, the Democrat-controlled Congress increased discretionary spending by 24 percent, or an astonishing 84 percent when the economic stimulus is included. In the two years since his speech, the national debt increased by three trillion dollars. We are on course to add another $1.65 trillion in fiscal year 2011.
This mountain of debt has serious consequences for future Americans. Here is just one: our annual interest payment on the national debt in 2021 will exceed $840 billion, double what taxpayers will spend that year on the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, Transportation, and Treasury. A dangerously large share of that payment will go each year to foreign creditors like China and India.
The American People--aware that an economy burdened by such deficits cannot grow and a nation encumbered by such debt cannot long endure--spoke with clarity in the November elections. Their message: we want less government, less spending, and less borrowing.
Freshman members of Congress were sent to Washington with both a mandate and a responsibility to make tough choices, impose fiscal discipline, and remove harmful regulation.
Already we have eliminated earmarks, cut waste, and trimmed the fat. But we start in earnest this week as the House of Representatives considers legislation to cut $100 billion in spending over the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year--the largest cuts in the history of Congress.
Under the bill, no program is immune or sacred. Indeed, many "worthy priorities" will be cut, some significantly.
Although this may trouble those that seek to protect pet projects or favored initiatives, the simple reality is that America is broke, and the situation is getting worse--not better. Right now, we cannot afford luxuries. It is time for tough choices.
To be clear: the goal is not austerity. Nor is it to cut simply for cutting's sake. Rather, we seek to remove the wet blankets of debt, regulation, and uncertainty that together are weighing down our economy. Once freed, small businesses will begin to invest and create jobs, jumpstarting an era of prosperity driven not by government spending, but rather by sustainable, free market growth.
In truth, the debate this week is only the tip of the iceberg. Discretionary spending represents a small share of the overall budget, and real change requires reforms to strengthen mandatory spending programs that will otherwise soon collapse. Making an impact on discretionary spending is the first step to overcoming those long-term challenges.
As a relative newcomer to Congress, I am eager to see if the institution has the political will to do the right thing. The test will be whether a majority of members recognize the same "realities" that President Obama spoke of, but--unlike the president--feel a moral obligation to follow words with action, even if doing so is politically unpopular in the short term.
If so, President Obama may soon have an opportunity to sign into law desperately needed spending reductions--cuts made possible by the American People's willingness to sacrifice today in order to ensure a stronger and more prosperous America tomorrow.