Deficit Reduction: A Primer


We are relieved that congressional Republicans and the Obama administration were able to avert a government shutdown last week that would have hurt the U.S. economy and disrupted countless services. But there was something deeply disturbing about the process that led the nation to the brink of a shutdown — a politics-plagued process that is only likely to accelerate as Congress turns next to the issues of raising the nation’s debt limit and next year’s federal budget.

The Republicans are right when they assert the nation simply cannot continue to live beyond its means, and they are right when they target bloated, ineffective programs. Deficit reduction is essential, and it will require sacrifices from all of us.

The Democrats are right when they argue that deficit reduction cannot come solely on the backs of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. Cutting health, education, environmental and social welfare programs won’t cure budgetary woes created by huge defense outlays, vast entitlement programs and the tax cuts of recent years. Such moves can create untold misery without having much positive economic impact.

Speaking of entitlements: programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security have materially improved the lives of millions of Americans over the decades. The health-related government programs are also vital to the countless agencies served by the Jewish federation system and their clients — our neighbors and family members, in so many cases.

Identifying and eliminating waste in these programs and finding ways to deliver services more efficiently should be priorities. Gutting them, or implementing “reforms” that would remove the guarantee that these programs will be available to all Americans who need them, would be a disaster.

We live in a dangerous age. The Iran nuclear threat grows by the day and the menace of international terrorism has not subsided. National defense must remain a top priority.

But deficit reduction will be a dangerous illusion without serious efforts to curb defense spending. Congress could start with all those weapons programs — boondoggles is a better word for the common practice — that the Defense Department says it doesn’t want or need. And going to war on the “fight now, pay later” plan can only dig us deeper into the debt hole.

Neither party has offered inspired, inspiring leadership on the issue of reining in spending, preferring instead to deal in politically handy but ultimately meaningless slogans. That needs to change if we are to lessen the burden on our children and grandchildren without putting it on today’s poor, elderly and infirm.