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Charles Arlinghaus: How language about the budget ends debate, squashes reform

April 08. 2014 5:19PM

I hesitate to say this, but Washington should be more like Concord. Discussions about federal budget and policy changes take place in a language completely divorced from reality and designed quite purposefully to keep anyone from figuring out what is going on. Language and culture matter. The language of Washington creates a culture designed to make us all cynical and apathetic.

My thoughts are spurred by the idiotic language used to describe Paul Ryan's budget proposal. You don't need to agree that Ryan's plan is positive to see the stupidity embraced by the language of Washington. They could do with the slightly plainer speaking of Concord (or probably any other locale separated from D.C. by reality).

In Concord, part-time legislators discuss budgets in terms that resemble reality. To this day, "cut" is the term used to describe a decrease in spending. For example, if spending one year is $100 and it actually declines in the next year to $95, we refer to that as a cut of 5 percent. One person may like that cut and one may not, but both know what happened. Because the language resembles reality, you and I in the general public also know what happened.

In Washington, though, no one has a clue. This is a general statement not in need of much clarification.

Last year Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., tred to show that food stamp spending was too low by buying a single egg for $1.08 and complaining about the price. The guy who buys eggs one at a time at outlandish prices is the one doing budget policy in Washington, while you and I and the other 300 million Americans who buy them twelve at a time at a tiny fraction of the price sit and wonder why these people are so fiscally insane.

Anytime anyone talks about even the slightest fiscal restraint, we leave the English language behind. Which brings us to the Ryan budget proposal.

Washington can't and won't make actual cuts. The budget is never cut. But once in a blue moon someone wants it to grow a little more slowly. Under current law, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that government outlays will grow by an annual average of 5.4 percent for the next 10 budgets. The difficulty is that revenue will grow by only 5 percent and we would spend, over 10 years, $8 trillion more than we take in.

They get away with that because Congress doesn't actually have to balance the budget. It's only the little people and states that have to do that. Overpaid people with giant staffs who do most of their work for them so they can concentrate on buying one egg at a time don't play by the same rules.

So Paul Ryan — who, let's be honest, is something of a spoil sport here who probably has no understanding of the individual egg market — decides to make a change. His plan would increase spending slightly less quickly than revenue grows so that in a decade the budget would balance.

This is described in Washington-speak as "slashing federal spending." His plan for outlays averages 3.5 percent annually instead of 5.4 percent. The budget grows every year. It grows faster than the rate of inflation even. But apparently inside the District of Columbia, a slightly slower growth rate equals slashed budgets.

The budget language is a barrier that keeps politicians from acting and keeps you and I from caring. If any change is a "slash," no one will propose meaningful change. Worse, the word "slash" steals the headline and mutes both the substance of the problem and the substance of the solution. So the general public pays no attention to the unmentioned substance.

In fact, solutions are not debated because the problem is not accepted. Washington's budget doesn't have to balance, so the politicians don't balance it. The most important debate to resolve is the necessity of balancing the budget. The way to resolve it is to find a mechanism to force that balance on misbehaving politicians.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and the GOP Congress got into a bidding war about how fast to balance the budget. Because left and right agreed that budgets must be balanced, they were. We must try to create a new bidding war.

As the next presidential cycle begins and candidates flock to our fair state, our best hope is that Hillary Clinton (probably) and her Republican challengers try to one up each other on balance. If both parties campaign on a balanced budget and agree to one in 10 years, we may finally debate the substance of how to get there.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Poilcy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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