TAMPA, January 15, 2014 – The Associated Press reported today that Republicans and Democrats are ready to support a $1.1 trillion spending bill that would fund the federal government through its current fiscal year, which ends September 30, 2014. Citing a perceived mandate from voters to put aside their differences, Congress largely abandoned the superficial cuts remaining from sequestration.
Those widely reported “cuts” weren’t really decreases in spending. They were merely promises to increase spending less than planned.
Out in the real world, when an employee making $18.00 per hour gets a 5% pay cut, his new hourly wage is $17.10. That’s not how it works in Washington, D.C. When a federal program funded at $3 billion in 2013 is “cut,” it’s funded for $3.1 billion in 2014 instead of $3.2 billion.
What have been called “draconian cuts” and “gutting the military” by hysterical politicians and media are, for the most part, increases in spending that beneficiaries deem inadequate. Now, even that infinitesimal restraint is gone.
Depending upon which poll one cites and the wording of the questions in it, there is some evidence that the public was unhappy with last autumn’s government shutdown and desires more “bipartisanship” in Congress. Representatives on both sides of the aisle were eager to comply in an election year.
“There’s a desire to show people we can do our job,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
However, no poll attempts to separate net taxpayers from net tax collectors. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the latter group would be unhappy with any interruption in government spending. A poll exclusively querying the former group may have yielded far different results.
Regardless of how any part of the public feels about federal spending, it is going to be cut dramatically. The fiscal realities that prompted sequestration and the shutdown have not gone away. Playing nice in Congress hasn’t changed that.
The federal government can only service its $16 trillion debt while its interest rate remains artificially low. The Federal Reserve has attempted to keep it near zero since 2008. It has only been successful because other buyers of federal debt have continued to buy while the Fed has pumped liquidity into the economy with its own purchases.
Should China, the Fed or any other buyer of federal debt cease or even significantly decrease its purchases, interest rates will begin to rise.
When interest rates rise on home mortgages, it hurts. When interest rates rise on $16 trillion, chaos ensues.
According to the White House’s fiscal year 2014 Budget proposal, interest in fiscal year 2013 was $220 billion or 6.2% of all federal spending. That was with interest rates below one half of one percent. It doesn’t take a Nobel Laureate to imagine what happens if the rate begins creeping up to the modest 3-6% levels of the last decade, much less the double digit rates accompanying the crises of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Annual interest due on federal debt would increase hundreds of millions of dollars.
That would amount to de facto cuts in federal spending on everything else. We’re not talking about make believe “cuts” where spending is still more than the year before. We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars less available to spend than the year before. We’re talking about cuts.
Increasing tax revenues isn’t the answer because taxes revenues are already maxed out. The only real debate left on tax rates is whether the top rate on the wealthiest should be 33% or 39%, which is inconsequential to the debt problem. If tax rates are raised significantly overall, revenues go down. That’s already been proven.
So, the federal government tiptoes forward on a fiscal tightrope, dependent upon a set of artificially-created conditions that could change at any time. An overpriced stock market could crash on its own. China could decide to cease or decrease its debt purchases. A natural disaster could occur. Any of these could start the dominoes falling towards higher interest rates, recession for the economy and an unserviceable federal debt.
Even if none of the above occur, the end is inevitable. If printing money to buy your own debt were sustainable, the government could legalize counterfeiting and everyone would be rich. Sooner or later, economic reality will assert itself and the United States will be forced to consume less than it produces. The only question on federal spending is whether it will decrease due to a deliberate act of Congress or the way Greece’s did.
The current budget deal may provide an answer.
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.