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Op-Ed: Rehberg Opinion: When It Comes to Spending, Don't Ignore the Tip of the Iceberg


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Long after the unsinkable Titanic settled at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, people asked whether the disaster had been avoidable. Titanic had been the greatest ship the world had ever seen, but hubris excused reckless speeds in dangerous waters and critical warning signs were ignored.

Today, at the helm of the greatest nation the world has ever seen, the same hubris threatens the same results putting our future in real jeopardy. With every dollar of new debt to countries like China and Saudi Arabia, we steam deeper into dark waters riddled with fiscal icebergs. And our Captain is ordering more speed -- more debt.

Deficit spending is not new, but the unprecedented rate of spending in Congress is. In fact, after the huge spending increases of the past year, the money we owe is predicted to be almost as much as the nation's total economic output for an entire year. Beyond unsustainable, we are on a collision course with an economic disaster every bit as dangerous as the iceberg that sank Titanic.

The source of the problem is the spending culture in Washington, D.C. With every new challenge we face -- from the economy to health care costs to overreliance on foreign energy -- the only solution that Washington offers is more spending. Even the deficit itself will supposedly be fixed by spending a trillion dollars on health care. Only in Congress would anyone think that the answer to overspending is more spending. It's time to right our fiscal course, which is why I have joined House Republicans in a self-imposed moratorium on earmarks. This is only the first step toward true spending reform that will make Washington look a little more like Montana. As a portion of the total spending in Washington, earmarks are just the tip of the iceberg. Eliminating them doesn't fix the bulk of ice under the water's surface, but earmarks are important because they provide a peek at the bigger problem.

I recently asked Montanans what they thought about earmarks. Of the thousands that responded to my survey, nine out of ten viewed earmarks unfavorably. Together, they indicated that of the various types of federal spending, earmarks were the worst, which is why 90% supported my decision to forgo earmarks this year. These Montanans get it. They understand the importance of earmarks isn't in their dollar amount, but how they reinforce the spending culture in Congress.

To change how Congress spends, we need to first change the culture that rewards spending over saving. For every announcement of a funding decrease in Congress, you could find ten funding increases. Earmarks give each member of Congress a small piece of the massive spending pie. Voting against these bills, then, means voting against pet projects and that can lead to "bad press" back home. Last year, I voted against 10 of 12 spending bills, and each time, I was criticized by some for voting against Montana projects. Every politician claims they want to help children, and the best place to start is by making sure our kids don't have to inherit the $41,000 in debt that every American currently owes.

Like the Titanic, we can't turn on a dime. Spending reform will take time and sacrifice, but it's a sacrifice Montanans are willing to make. Once we start to change the culture that glorifies spending, we can focus on more fundamental reforms. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I'm in an ideal position to bring some Montana values to Washington.

We can start by zero-basing the budget. Currently, each year's budget is based on the previous year's allotment, plus inflation and increases. Because everyone has a horse in the race, no one questions the starting point. But we should, because a dollar spent last year isn't by itself a good reason to spend another dollar this year.

By avoiding the icebergs that we can see, we can start navigating out of the dangerous waters completely. That means a serious conversation about entitlement reform. Two out of every three dollars the federal government spends are on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. This year, Social Security will pay out more than it takes in. Entitlements are a time bomb that needs to be defused.

We need to balance the budget. If it's good enough for Montana's families and our state government, a balanced budget ought to be good enough for Congress. I've sponsored an Amendment to the Constitution that would require just that -- a balanced budget.

As Titanic steamed through the North Atlantic, the crew ignored the small chunks of ice because they didn't see them as a threat. They didn't realize they were warnings of much bigger problems ahead. The federal government can still turn this ship around, but we have to start now by paying heed to the little warnings that will lead to big changes.

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