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Fiscal Responsibility Does Not Have to be Reckless

For many of us who claim to believe in fiscal responsibility, the frustration has been building relentlessly over the years: misleading budgeting of war costs; a massive, unfunded expansion of Medicare; tax cuts called “temporary” so that their long-term effects are hidden in the official projections; a new health care regime replete with accounting shell games; and the formation of a good faith bi-partisan Fiscal Commission which gets no support from any quarter of the government.

And so it is tempting to use any means necessary to cut the spending.  It is tempting to hold Republicans’ feet to the fire of their campaign pledge to cut $100 billion precipitously and without regard to the harm to needed programs.  It is tempting to use Mutual Assured Destruction brinkmanship to threaten to shut down the government or to freeze the debt cap without regard to the collateral damage to the country and to international confidence in our currency.  And it is tempting to threaten any voices of reason with a challenge from the right flank in their next primary election if they don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

Perhaps, with things as they are, there is no other way to begin the much-delayed process of bringing our finances under control.  But this approach is reckless, potentially dangerous, and will leave a legacy of further acrimony and bitterness with many new scores to settle among our members of Congress.  And it won’t do anything to convince the broad majority of Americans that our government is good hands.

And saddest of all is the fact that it doesn’t have to be this way.  The Public Check on Congress amendment, had it been in place, would have created a much hotter seat much earlier on fiscal matters and Congress would have been obliged to act as a single entity to implement and explain to America whatever tough choices had to be made.  Decisions would have been made on a much more strategic basis, evolving over a year or two, with input and political cover provided transparently by appropriate advisory bodies.  And the critical connection would be with the broad center of America, not with one political fringe or another or with campaign financiers.

The good news, of course, is that we Americans are a smart people: smart enough to see clearly that our system for making political decisions needs an adjustment, and to begin a serious look, with an appropriate degree of urgency, at alternatives to fix it.

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