Robert J. Samuelson: Balancing the budget requires aswering questions politicos evade

Published: Tuesday, July 22 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Congress has adopted other budget rules to subdue deficits: Gramm-Rudman-Hollings; "paygo"; discretionary spending caps; sequestration. At best, the effects have been marginal. All these rules suffer from the same defect: They try to accomplish big political and social changes through technical, mechanical means that, by design, mystify the public. But once the consequences become clear, politicians retreat. They circumvent, modify, ignore or weaken the rules.

Except in crises, which create their own logic, our political system requires the support or (at least) the acquiescence of public opinion to make major changes. The only way to cure chronic deficits is to cut someone's benefits or raise someone's taxes. But this requires an open debate to reshape public opinion. What is government's proper role? Who deserves benefits? What taxes are effective and needed?

These are precisely the basic questions that political leaders of both parties evade, because the answers would offend much of the public. They would jeopardize the protected status of all of today's benefits for the elderly. They would reveal that, even after plausible spending cuts, only higher taxes can balance the budget. Presidents and congressional leaders have judged this sort of candor to be a pointless exercise in political suicide.

Instead, they take refuge in "budget process" fixes. What we've learned after four decades is that, as policy, this is little better than prayer.

Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.

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