Weekly Column by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.): Stopping Washington From Spending Money It Doesn’t Have

Posted on August 11, 2011

Finally, with the debt-reduction agreement Congress made with the President in early August, Washington is starting to take some responsibility for years of spending money we don’t have.

At a time when the federal government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends, this agreement represents a welcome change in behavior that I was glad to support.

Make no mistake. This was a change in behavior—from spend, spend, spend to cut, cut, cut.

Let me give you one example: On Christmas Eve, 2010, Congress raised the debt ceiling and attached to it a trillion new dollars in spending over ten years through the new health care law.        

This time, for every dollar we are raising the debt ceiling, we are reducing spending by a dollar—not adding to it.

Here is another example: According to Sen. Portman, who used to be the nation’s budget director, the Congressional Budget Office would say that if Congress did this kind of dollar-for-dollar reduction in spending every time a president asked Congress to raise the debt ceiling, we’d balance the budget in ten years.

And one more: The Wall Street Journal reported that because of these spending cuts, the discretionary part of the budget, which is 39 percent of the entire budget, will grow over the next ten years at a little less than the rate of inflation. If we could control the rest of the budget so that it would grow at anything close to the rate of inflation, we’d balance the budget in no time.

And balancing the budget is exactly what our goal should be. That’s what I did every year as governor of Tennessee. Families in America do it every day.

It is time to balance the government’s books and live within our means.

These spending reductions are an important step—but they are just one step—and no one should underestimate how difficult the next steps will be. Our work on reducing this nation’s alarming debt has only begun.

These spending cuts do almost nothing to restructure Medicare and Social Security so that seniors can count on them and taxpayers can afford them. The President’s budget projections still double and triple the federal debt. Under the President’s budgets, according to the Congressional Budget Office, in ten years we’ll be spending more in interest on the debt than we now spend on national defense. And, in January, 2013, the first thing the next president will have to do is to ask Congress to increase the debt ceiling.

This problem wasn’t created overnight, and it won’t be solved overnight. But if I were sitting at Union Station trying to catch a train to New York City and someone offered me a ticket to Baltimore or Philadelphia, I’d take it, and then find a way to get to New York from there.

This agreement was an opportunity to take an important step in the right direction—toward stopping Washington from spending money it doesn’t have.

Congress should now get ready to find ways to take the next step and the next step and the next. The American people have a right to expect Congress to work across party lines to reduce the federal debt by at least $4 trillion over the next ten years.

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