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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Steering Clear of the Iceberg Ahead

It's time for Congress to get real.
"Doomsday!" "Taxmageddon!" "Catastrophe!" Next year will begin with both a bang and a whimper unless Congress can escape its apparently hopeless deadlock.
Unless our lawmakers get their act together, there will be the equivalent of an abrupt tax increase of about $600 billion and a reduction in spending by the federal government of $110 billion over nine months. Experts say this is a recipe for a new recession, if not a full-fledged depression.
How did we get to the precipice of this fiscal cliff? The Budget Control Act, which Congress passed in August 2011, authorized a short-term increase in the debt ceiling and a total of $917 billion in cuts from projected spending over a decade, about half of which comes from the military budget.

The deal also specified an automatic $110 billion reduction, called "sequestration," in the fiscal 2013 budget if a so-called congressional "supercommittee" couldn't agree by Christmas 2011 on a plan to reduce the projected federal debt by at least an additional $1.2 trillion over a 10-year period.
Not surprisingly, considering the dysfunction of Congress, that not-so-super committee failed in its mission.
Both Democrats and Republicans agree on the need to reduce the federal deficit, but they disagree fundamentally on how and when to do it. Generally, Democrats want a balanced approach, reducing lower-priority expenditures and increasing revenues through a fairer tax system, while maintaining a safety net for the needy. Democrats also emphasize buttressing the weak economy in the near term and achieving debt reduction in the longer term.
Since almost all congressional Republicans have taken an oath not to raise taxes, they favor larger reductions in federal expenditures, particularly in social programs, such as food stamps.
The sharp reductions in fiscal 2013 expenditures mandated in the Budget Control Act were designed to press the supercommittee to resolve this challenge, especially with half the cuts specified for the Pentagon's budget. In an attempt to bypass that pact, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives recently passed legislation to shift all of the planned spending reductions to domestic programs, which would deeply gut the social programs that so many people depend upon.
From 1998 to 2011, the base military budget — not counting all that so-called "emergency supplemental" spending that funded our prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — grew 46 percent when adjusted for inflation. Despite the forecasts of doom, the reduction in the base Pentagon budget directed by the Budget Control Act would reduce it only to its 2006 level. That would approximately equal the average military spending levels we saw during Reagan's Cold War build-up in the 1980s.
Despite their differences, both the House and the Senate have already defied the Budget Control Act by passing massive defense bills for fiscal 2013 that pierce this ceiling.
It's time for Congress to get real. Lawmakers must extend the deadline to phase in spending reductions and reduce the coming shock to the vulnerable U.S. economy. It's well past time for Congress to cooperate, at least to this extent.
Lt. General (USA, Ret.) Robert G. Gard, Jr., PhD is chairman of the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
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