The Ripon Forum

Volume 0, No. 0

Dec 2006 - Jan 2007 Issue

A Bipartisan Solution to Long-Term Spending Discipline

By on October 26, 2015 with 0 Comments

SAFE Commission would call on both Democrats and Republicans to serve

by ARLEN SPECTER

One of the most important duties entrusted to Congress is budgeting. Congress must guard against an over sized bureaucracy and wasteful spending, while supporting effective programs and preserving the hard-earned dollars of our nation’s taxpayers. 

Regrettably, our government has historically spent more than we have taken in. To make matters worse, we are ill-equipped to handle an aging U.S. population, an increasing life expectancy and the rising cost of healthcare, all of which will put severe pressure on the federal budget over the coming decades. Massive projected growth in entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will create a situation in which economic growth alone is unlikely to mitigate the expanding deficit. 

Tackling the federal budget deficit is no easy task. As Nicholas Gregory Mankiw, a former chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, noted, “policy options aren’t pretty – either large cuts in promised benefits or taxes vastly higher than anything ever experienced in U.S. history.” Additionally, partisan politics have often prevented meaningful dialogue on the problem. 

One important hallmark, of this legislation is that, unlike most commissions whose work often goes unnoticed, the final product of the SAFE Commission will see action when Congress casts a required up-or-down vote on the recommendations and any other proposals put on the table.

In an August 28th op-ed in The Washington Post, former Senators Bob Kerrey and Warren Rudman aptly described the partisan quandary. “Neither party wants to be the first to propose these tough choices out of fear that the other side would attack it,” they wrote. “Similarly, neither side wants to discuss possible compromises of its own priorities, out of fear that the other side will take the concessions and run.” Thus, it has become glaringly clear that we must explore new and inventive approaches that will bypass partisan politics and help us find a solution to the flood of debt on the horizon. This is precisely why I have decided to become a cosponsor of the Securing America’s Future Economy (SAFE) Commission Act. 

In the same August op-ed, Senators Kerrey and Rudman endorse the SAFE Commission Act. Proposed by Senator George Voinovich and Congressman Frank Wolf, the legislation seeks to overcome the political difficulties associated with tackling long-term reform of fiscal policy. Under the plan, a commission of bipartisan experts on budget and economic policies will be tasked with studying,  identifying, and recommending solutions to the long-term fiscal challenges facing the United States. Based on their analysis and the crucial input of the public at town hall meetings throughout the country, the Commission will put all options on the table and craft legislation. In particular, they will seek to address the following: the imbalance between long-term federal spending commitments and projected revenues; stimulating domestic investment and economic growth through increased national savings; and, improving the budget process to place greater emphasis on long-term fiscal issues. 

The President and Congress will each have sufficient time to review the  Commission’s legislation and develop alternative proposals if they deem it necessary. One important hallmark of this legislation is that, unlike most commissions whose work often goes unnoticed, the final product of the SAFE Commission will see action when Congress casts a required up-or-down vote on the recommendations and any other proposals put on the table. 

The commission approach has proved successful in addressing the fiscal imbalance of spending and entitlements. In 1981, Congress and the President appointed The National Commission on Social Security Reform, better known as the “Greenspan Commission,” to study and make recommendations on how best to solve the Social Security crisis. That approach shaped a bipartisan dialogue and formed the basis for the enactment of the Social Security Amendments of 1983 which made significant changes to the program and enhanced long-term solvency. This type of bipartisan approach should again be considered to evaluate the looming problems facing our nation with respect to its long-term fiscal health. 

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The need to ensure the federal budget is on a sustainable path comes into sharp focus for me when I consider the future of my four grandchildren.

Supporting the SAFE Commission Act is consistent with my previous efforts to enact economic and budget process reforms to ensure fiscal discipline, protect against wasteful spending, and simplify the tax code. In 1996, I strongly supported giving the President the authority to veto specific line items in appropriations bills. However, that law was subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998. In 1997, I was an original cosponsor of an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to require a balanced budget. This would force the President and Congress to determine priorities and pass a responsible budget based on the resources available. Unfortunately, enactment of this tool fell one vote short of the constitutionally required 67 votes in the Senate. In 1995, I introduced the first bill in the Senate that would create a Federal flat tax and completely replace current tax provisions with an across-the-board 20 percent Federal tax on the income of individuals and businesses. I have included provisions in this bill that would eliminate the estate tax as well as the tax on dividends. 

The need to ensure the federal budget is on a sustainable path comes into sharp focus for me when I consider the future of my four grandchildren. My wife Joan and I would never consider imposing our financial obligations on them, or spending money on their credit cards for them to pay at some later date. But that is precisely what we have done as a society. Unfortunately, partisan politics often gets in the way of having a candid dialogue on controlling federal spending. 

The SAFE Commission Act would help overcome that by providing expert analysis of the situation. In the process, it would set the stage for a meaningful, fair debate on how best to confront our rising national debt.  RF


Arlen Specter is the senior United States Senator from Pennsylvania.

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