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Shackled by 'dead men'

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By Charles Lane
Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

In theory, the American people's elected representatives decide every so often how much to tax the public and how to allocate the revenue among various priorities, both short term and long term.

In practice, however, Congress and the president have almost no such fiscal latitude. The vast majority of anticipated tax proceeds, roughly 80 percent currently, already are committed to programs — such as Social Security and Medicare and in interest on the national debt — before the House and Senate convene each January.

By 2023, the figure will approach 100 percent if current trends continue. Consequently, the federal government would have to borrow its entire discretionary budget, for things such as disaster relief, infrastructure and education.

This near-total loss of “fiscal freedom” is the theme of “Dead Men Ruling,” a short, superb new book by C. Eugene Steuerle, from which the above statistics derive.

The title nicely expresses the fact that today's lawmakers are tightly constrained by the accumulated, and seemingly unalterable, decisions of their predecessors. Government is not just out of their control; it's beyond their control.

Steuerle persuasively argues that the nation's budget challenge is to restore a long-term balance between spending and revenue so that the federal government can invest in new priorities without further indebting an already dangerously indebted country.

Declining fiscal freedom is politically toxic, too. The two parties define themselves by past achievements — New Deal and Great Society programs for Democrats, low tax rates (and various tax breaks) for Republicans — and then fight uncompromisingly to perpetuate them.

Steuerle's book is an effective riposte to those who would argue that fiscal concerns are overblown in light of recent progress against the deficit or that “deficit hawks” are just rationalizing mean-spirited “austerity” to punish the poor and elderly.

A government that lives within its means would be freer to stimulate the economy during recessions or to devote more resources to the needs of poor children, as opposed to maintaining the current consumption of older middle- and upper-middle-class voters, which is the unstated but actual purpose of the status quo.

At least Steuerle, unlike other budget pundits, is upbeat about the challenge, emphasizing the opportunities for policy innovation and reinvigorated governance that would result from the restoration of “fiscal freedom.”

As the intellectually sterile election campaigns currently underway show, however, few politicians, if any, have figured out how to express Steuerle's combination of realism and optimism and sell it to voters. The future might belong to the one who finally does.

Charles Lane is a Washington Post columnist.

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