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U.S. Must Learn How to Spend Smarter

Op-Ed

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After balancing our federal budget in 1969, nearly three decades passed before we did so again.

Then, thanks to a booming economy and the 1997 deficit reduction agreement reached by a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, we achieved four straight years of balanced budgets and looked forward to continuing surpluses. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned we might pay down our debt too quickly.

He need not have worried.

After 9/11, we became embroiled in two costly wars that, coupled with a recession and revenue lost from tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, doubled our debt by 2009. Now, as our economy slowly recovers from the 2008 financial crisis, our debt is poised to double again in the next decade. We must not let that happen.

So what should we do?

Today, there are three major proposals dominating the headlines. The first is the product of a bipartisan deficit reduction commission created by President Obama.

Co-chaired by President Clinton's former chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, and former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), this commission has proposed reducing the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years by putting everything on the table -- domestic discretionary spending, defense spending, entitlement programs and taxes. Two-thirds of the savings would come from spending cuts and one-third from increased revenues. We can all find aspects of the plan to disagree with, but it's a credible plan toward a sustainable fiscal path.

A second proposal, offered by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) last month, would also reduce the federal budget deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years.

Unlike the deficit commission's plan, Ryan's budget would produce almost all of its savings from unsustainable cuts to discretionary spending and Medicare and Medicaid programs, while doing little in the way of tax reform to promote economic growth and to better ensure we all pay our fair share.

President Obama unveiled a third plan in April, incorporating much of the Bowles-Simpson proposal. It would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion by 2023, end the Bush tax cuts for income over $250,000 as part of a needed overhaul of our tax system and implement proven approaches to curb the exponential growth in health care costs.

While I favor the more balanced approach offered by the Bowles-Simpson commission and echoed by President Obama, it's encouraging that Republican and Democratic leaders recognize that we must act now to reduce the deficit. Waiting is no longer an option.

To that end, Vice President Biden has begun bipartisan talks with Congressional leaders to craft a long-term deficit reduction plan.

We shouldn't, however, treat the debate over the budget as if there are only two solutions -- cut spending or raise taxes. An honest approach would do some of each.

But there are two additional principles that we should embrace: 1) adopting policies that foster long-term economic growth; and, 2) achieving better results throughout the government for less money.

To encourage long-term economic growth, President Obama is calling on us to out-educate, out-innovate and out-compete the rest of the world.

The president, along with many economists and business leaders, argues that 21st century jobs will go to nations that create world-class workforces and infrastructures, while investing in research and development to create new technologies and products.

To obtain that workforce, infrastructure, and cutting edge-products stamped "Made in the USA" and sold around the world, the president proposes bolstering investments in these priorities as part of a comprehensive budget strategy. I couldn't agree more.

Making across-the-board cuts to government programs to lower the deficit is tempting, but it won't foster the economic growth needed to realize our deficit reduction goals.

Finally, our approach to federal spending must change.

Many Americans think leaders squander tax dollars on ineffective programs. They aren't entirely wrong. We must replace a "culture of spendthrift" with a "culture of thrift" and spend prudently to get a bigger bang for the taxpayers' buck. This requires examining every nook and cranny of government -- from health care to weapons systems -- and asking: Is it possible to get better results for less money?

Employing a "culture of thrift" could save taxpayers' money, whether it's by eliminating over $125 billion annually in improper payments and another $60 billion in Medicare fraud or by enhancing the president's line-item-veto authority.

But our deficit reduction efforts are doomed if we don't curb health care costs. The health care reform law, while not perfect, includes a number of initiatives that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says will trim our budget by $125 billion over the next 10 years and by another $1 trillion over the following decade.

One economist said the law has thrown a ton of good ideas for cost containment up against the wall, and we'll have to see how many will stick. Former Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder recently shared similar thoughts, essentially saying, "Find out what works and do more of that."

That's good advice for our entire government. For programs that aren't working, let's try to make them better, and if they still aren't working, let's get rid of them.


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