By Calvin Trice
Federal lawmakers will have to reform entitlement programs if the government is going to bring spending and deficits under control in the long run, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte told members of a local chamber of commerce.
The across-the-board sequestration cuts that set in automatically this year have slowed the growth of the federal debt, but that effect will only be temporary, Goodlatte told the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.
Sequester cuts only affect about 30 percent of the federal budget that funds discretionary items like defense, parks and education. The other 70 percent that includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, disability payments and other programs that pay out to everyone who qualifies for benefits must be reformed to bring the budget under control, Goodlatte said.
"They're growing at an average about four times the rate of inflation, and that is a serious problem," he said.
A January tax increase and the spring sequestration leveled off the deficit growth, but because those changes don't affect growing entitlement spending, overall deficit growth will resume within a couple of years, Goodlatte said.
Making the fiscal problem worse is the recent decline in the size of the nation's workforce, meaning fewer workers contribute payroll taxes to support entitlement programs for older Americans.
"With so many people going onto those different programs, and the cost of those programs growing at four times the rate of inflation fewer and fewer people working cannot sustain that," Goodlatte said.
Washington's budget challenges highlights the fact that federal health care reform has been passed at a time when the country can't afford it, Goodlatte said. The technical problems people have encountered trying to sign up under the Affordable Care Act represent just the surface of what's wrong with the legislation often referred to as Obamacare, he said.
"Those things are in my opinion serious problems, and they need to be addressed, but they only mask the underlying problem here which is that this is another program that we simply cannot afford given the fact that we're doing nothing to reform the already-existing programs," he said.
Lawmakers must reduce federal spending with entitlement reform, he said, then make a habit of balancing the budget, a cause for which Goodlatte has championed with a proposal to amend the Constitution.
Goodlatte spoke for about a half hour at the chamber gathering of about 40 people, then fielded questions for another 30 minutes for responses that covered budgeting and immigration reform, a topic at or near the top of the House Judiciary Committee that he chairs.