Guest Column: Washington has the wrong budget discussions — again

John Kass, Kansas City Star

The following editorial appeared in the Kansas City Star on Monday, Sept. 23:

It must be terribly frustrating to work for the Congressional Budget Office.

Every year around this time, the group issues a report about just how grim the nation’s long-term financial health is. A few lawmakers wring their hands and say they will get serious about fixing the problem, but then they don’t. We, as a nation, rush toward a debt-induced disaster if no one heeds the warning.

The nonpartisan budget office issued its new forecast this month. It offered one glimmer of hope. Short-term, the federal budget is in better shape now than in recent years.

Thank a slowly recovering economy, sequestration spending cuts and a few tax changes. Annual deficits that topped $1 trillion in recent years have shrunk to their smallest level since 2008. They will continue to decline until about 2018.

Then, if nothing changes, everything starts going haywire again.

Budget deficits will increase each year, driving up the national debt. By the budget office’s calculations, the federal debt will equal the entire gross domestic product of the nation by 2038 and will increase from there. That would approach levels not seen since the years after World War II.

The Congressional Budget Office calls that “ultimately unsustainable,” which is the polite way to say America is doomed unless it makes fundamental changes.

Budget officials and economists have sounded this alarm for decades, at least back to the Reagan years. Entitlement programs, particularly health care and Social Security, will demand an increasing share of total spending. Interest on the debt, too, will become a greater expense, weighing ever more heavily on future generations.

Washington just isn’t listening. Lawmakers, activists and lobbyists get twisted up over discretionary spending programs that the budget group forecasts will basically remain flat in the next 25 years. The Farm Bill, for all its other problems, stalled because of the minor (in the grand scheme of things) expense of food stamps.

Even now, partisans are bickering about what should be a routine increase to the debt ceiling so that the government can spend money Congress already authorized.

Default and a government shutdown loom while Republicans insist on fighting over the Affordable Care Act again, a battle they cannot win given that President Barack Obama holds a veto pen and the Senate has a Democratic majority. Members of both parties worry more about short-term political gains than long-term solvency.

Those and other hurdles prevent the serious conversation about revenue and entitlement reform that the nation needs. The longer we wait, the deeper the hole becomes. The current national debt is $16.7 trillion. That’s about $53,000 for every man, woman and child in America.

The Congressional Budget Office once again has given America a peek at its future. If it comes to pass, in 2038, Americans will hold few fond memories for those who were warned that fiscal disaster was coming and did nothing.