With the debt ceiling ordeal concluded, the budget policy debate in Washington, D.C. has shifted from its traditional discussion of what to spend to a new dialogue about how much to cut. In Connecticut, meanwhile, the opposite is true as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s tax hikes continue to be instituted.
Those who seek more efficiency and better outcomes from government are right to be encouraged by the federal developments and further discouraged by those in the Nutmeg State. But it is important to keep the focus on the real goal of government reform rather than simply honing in on spending cuts for the sake of cuts.
President Barack Obama described his position during the negotiations as a “balanced approach” (he could as easily have called it “shared sacrifice”). Like Gov. Malloy, the President’s plan included both spending reductions as well as tax increases. It appeared reasonable on its face — even 43 percent of Republicans supported some version of it.
But seeming sensible is the way in which otherwise irrational behavior is allowed to continue. The Tea Party-backed Republicans were elected to Congress by campaigning against spending and gargantuan deficits, such as the $1.4 trillion in red ink racked up in the last federal fiscal year’s budget, and the business-as-usual mentality that allowed it to occur in both major parties. They recognized that there is always a constituency for spending and that until spending control is implemented, tax increases exacerbate the problem rather than fix it.
For using the debt ceiling debate as a pivot point, Republicans have spent the rest of the week being criticized for the recklessness of forcing a choice between spending cuts or default. Commentators described their actions as a “hostage taking” and a “dangerous game of chicken.” Maureen Dowd, one of the New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning opinion writers, cast them as monsters in a horror film while others hammered Grover Norquist, the powerful President of Americans for Tax Reform whose anti-tax pledge bears the signature of nearly all Republican members of Congress.
With the deal done and as much as $2.4 trillion in potential spending reductions on the table, the really difficult task of actually implementing government reform now faces America’s federal elected officials.
Some would prefer to starve the beast — curtailing or wholly eliminating government functions to save money and shrink the size of government. Though attractive for its simplicity, it would assuredly prove unsustainable in the long run because while many Americans don’t like the way government provides services, it does not mean they do not need the services. Most people agree that there is a basic need to build and maintain infrastructure, provide world-class education, ensure public safety, help society’s least fortunate get back on their feet, and care for the disaffected, the handicapped, and sick. Anorexia isn’t a healthy way for people to lose weight and it is an ultimately unpopular way for government to shed its excess pounds, too.
The goal shouldn’t be to starve the ability of government to do anything, but rather to force government do things in ways that actually makes sense. Most people don’t often return to restaurants with lousy service, nor agree to pay more than the going rate, nor continue buying products that malfunction after just a few uses. People seek out better choices.
A more workable strategy is an incremental one that takes a piecemeal approach to reinventing each and every service and function provided by government. Spin off functions to the private sector. Institute bidding processes that constantly seek to deliver the same services for lower costs by competing public and private sector providers. Implement performance-based accounting measurements that tie money spent directly to outcomes received.
Taming the beast might not seem as satisfying, but it is certainly more sustainable than trying to starve it.
Heath W. Fahle served as executive director of the Connecticut Republican Party from 2007-09. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com.