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So Whose Fault is it When Candidates Fudge on the Federal Budget?
By Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle,
Authors of The Voter's Survival Kit, a series of election guides from PublicAgenda.org and the book Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis

You may have the sneaking feeling that there's something the presidential candidates aren't telling you about the federal budget. And you're right. Here it is:

Every expert who looks at the federal budget uses the same word to describe it: unsustainable. The federal government is $9.5 trillion in debt already, and is projected to run a half-trillion dollar deficit next year. Plus, there are huge expenses coming up as the baby boomers retire and start needing help from Medicare and Social Security. If we do nothing, the government simply won't be able to keep up with its obligations -- which could mean higher taxes, cuts in programs and a weaker economy for everyone.

You can see why someone running for president and eager to get every vote he can get might want to slide over this ugly little reality as quickly as possible. There's actually no way to solve the problem without cutting spending on things people like, or raising taxes to cover the coming expenses or most likely doing some of both. If you've been following any of the campaigning so far, you can easily imagine why Senators McCain and Obama aren't tackling this thing head on. 

Unfortunately, what they're saying while they're out there soliciting our votes is likely to put the country even deeper into debt. Political campaigns want to talk about more for everybody. And right now, the best independent analysis shows that the campaign promises coming from both John McCain and Barack Obama would make the problem worse (but for different reasons).

This isn't some hazy, far-off, inside-the-beltway problem. The next president won't have any choice but to start dealing with this problem. The first baby boomer started getting Social Security checks this year. Medicare also dipped into its trust fund for the first time -- not for very much, a "mere" $8 billion -- but it's the start of a disturbing trend.

If the red ink keeps flowing and we don't make some reality-based choices on the budget and Social Security and Medicare, we could jeopardize the health of our economy and our standard of living. The choices we make now will affect the amount of your paycheck, whether you can get a college loan or home mortgage, whether interest rates are high or low and whether older Americans (maybe that's you, or your parents or grandparents) can make ends meet and get the medical care they need.

If we do nothing, the country's debt will be growing faster than our economy in about 15 years, which means we won't be able to keep up. By 2040, the U.S. would need nearly every dollar it collects in taxes just to cover the costs of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the debt.

But the pain will come long before 2040. Sometimes you'll hear politicians talk about Social Security and Medicare "trust funds" that will keep the programs running for years (until 2019 for Medicare and 2041 for Social Security). And that's true -- you really don't have to worry about your Social Security check failing to show up.

The problem is that the federal government has already used most of the money in the trust funds to keep its other operations running Instead of having nest eggs to draw on, Medicare and Social Security basically have IOUs from the government. And how will the government pay them? By raising taxes, borrowing, or cutting other programs. The problem isn't that people on Social Security won't get their checks, it's that the rest of the government may go broke covering them.

That's what the candidates aren't telling you, And frankly, maybe it's just as much our fault as theirs. When was the last time you voted for a candidate because of his or her tough stand on balancing the budget or frank talk about getting Social Security and Medicare spending under control? Not lately? When was the last time you ruled someone out because he or she dared to suggested cuts to Medicare or Social Security, or dared talk about raising taxes, not cutting them?

Candidates and voters have both been dancing around the nation's budget mess for years. Senators McCain and Obama are fudging the unpleasant facts. Most of the electorate seems willing to reward the one who weaves the most attractive tale.

To some extent, the next administration will be defined by money, or lack of it to be more exact. All those shiny new programs and tempting tax cuts the candidates are offering you need to be seen in that context. Yes, you can still cut taxes, but you need to starting whacking government programs left and right to pay for them. Or you can start new programs -- but the money's going to have to come from somewhere.

And you, the voter, ought to start thinking about what you really want because, one way or another, you'll end up paying for it.


©2008 Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle

Author Bio
Jean Johnson
and Scott Bittle are lead authors of The Voter's Survival Kit, a series of election guides from Public Agenda and the book Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis (HarperCollins, 2008). Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to helping citizens tackle tough issues. The Survival Kit is available at www.publicagenda.org.