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America needs a budget breakthrough

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
  • William Bennett: Many agree on need to end piling on of U.S. debt
  • He says President Obama, his debt panel and Speaker Boehner agree debt is unsustainable
  • Whenever a specific cut is proposed, people complain, he says
  • Bennett: National conversation is needed about how to solve this problem

Editor's note: CNN contributor William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- Almost everyone in Washington knows that our national budget deficits and national debt are out of control. President Obama has said, "[W]e have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable."

The president's bipartisan fiscal responsibility commission has said, "The era of debt denial is over." And House Speaker John Boehner has said our unrestrained spending poses "a mortal threat" to our country.

But once the White House, Congress or outside analysts start talking about where to cut spending in the current continuing resolutions for this fiscal year or the president's budget for next year, the agreement quickly ends. In their first effort to trim the budget for this year, for example, the House of Representatives, where Republicans are in the majority, proposed nearly $60 billion in budget cuts -- and the Senate, where the Democrats hold the majority, defeated the proposal.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, called the plan a "scorched earth spending proposal."

The problem is, even while $60 billion in cuts is controversial, that amount does not even come close to seriously addressing the budget crises everyone seems to agree we face.

To put the numbers in perspective, financial author and radio host Dave Ramsey illustrated it this way: Take a couple that earns $58,000 a year. To put their income and spending on par with our nation's deficit spending ratios (we are about $16 trillion in debt, we spend about $3.7 trillion a year and take in about $2.9 trillion a year), it is akin to them spending nearly $75,000 a year. Now, realizing they have a spending problem, they decide to cut back their spending by $3,000 and then call that a success by saying these are "big cuts." They would still be spending more than 20% more than they earned.

So in the larger picture, these proposed reductions of $60 billion are not big cuts, and our budget proposals to cut our deficits and debt are simply not anywhere near fiscal sanity -- but, still, these small cuts remain controversial and cause political gridlock and recrimination.

So, where to start? The new Republican majority in the House has proposed cutting spending to 2008 levels. In 2008, spending was far lower than it is today -- approximately $2.9 trillion. Now, seeing these numbers, a common-sense question immediately arises: Does anyone recall complaints in 2008 that our nation was spending too little?

In fact, even four years ago, there were complaints we were spending too much, and the Fed chairman was saying, "[T]he fundamental decision that Congress, the administration and the American people must confront is how large a share of the nation's economic resources to devote to federal government programs, including transfer programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid."

To get a better grasp on Washington's seemingly inevitable spending increases -- even dismissing such nondiscretionary programs as Social Security and the like -- take a department I've run as illustrative: Education. In 1985, when I became education secretary, the department's budget was about $15.5 billion (or about $32.5 billion, adjusting for inflation).

It has increased every year since and, today, the president is proposing a 2012 budget for the department that approaches $90 billion; this, on top of the $100 billion in stimulus money it has already received. Another obvious and common-sense question arises: For all these billions spent at the national level, has education improved? The question answers itself.

Here is the general problem, as pinpointed by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher just over 20 years ago: We have reached a point of too-expansive governments where the state "takes too much from you to do too much for you, constantly substituting the politicians' view of what the people should have for the people's own view of what they want."

But the specific problem is worse: While politicians have their pet projects and specific views on what they would like to fund and what they would like to cut, the people (the governors' governors) have their own sacred cows.

The gridlock is not so much in Washington as it is in the electorate and the commentariat that generally agrees we need to cut spending but then engages in cognitive dissonance the moment specific programs are identified for retrenchment. Almost everyone agrees (nearly 70%) we need to cut spending, but majorities can't agree on cutting anything -- from education to Social Security to the arts.

The ultimate truth is this: Dave Ramsey is right -- every family knows it cannot go on forever with its own deficit spending, attempting minimal cuts that hardly begin to address the larger issue. The same is true for our country and its priorities. The spending cuts are simply not serious enough to deal with the problem both parties have created.

Commissions will not solve this, and bickering over the differences between $6 billion and $60 billion will not solve this. Rather, what is needed is a series of national symposia, a series of national teachable moments, outside of Washington. I suggest that the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, and whomever the Democrats would like to put up, commence a series of national debates throughout the country (make it seven, in the Lincoln-Douglas format), have them aired on the three cable networks, C-SPAN and on the internet, and see who has the best plan to restore fiscal sanity -- who can win over the most minds.

The time for a truly national conversation is upon us, the time for de minimis solutions is over, and the time for the American people to make up their minds is now.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.