July 29, 2014

An alarm clock for Maine

Perhaps even more than most of Concord’s Fiscal Wake-Up Tour programs, the one in Maine this week underscored the need for a really big alarm clock.

The recession has sliced into the government's revenue while putting its spending on steroids. Concord Executive Director Robert L. Bixby offered the Wake-Up Tour audience of more than 200 in Kennebunkport a troubling factoid: last month’s federal deficit of $180 billion was larger than the deficit for all of 2007.

And on the same day, the Obama administration released a grim projection of $9 trillion in deficits over the next decade, $2 trillion higher than its previous estimate. When this was reported in Kennebunkport, fretful murmurs swept through the room. 

Even the $9 trillion figure is probably too optimistic, according to Concord’s analysis. So to borrow an analogy from David M. Walker, president and CEO of The Peter G. Peterson Foundation: Watch out for the "tsunami" that’s on the way.

Then there’s the current status of the health care debate: High interest in new government services and assistance, considerably less enthusiasm for proposals to pay for them. And not all that much interest in dealing with the runaway medical costs we already have.

Part of those costs can be traced to the ill-considered Medicare drug benefit that Congress created several years ago. It uses tax dollars to subsidize even the wealthiest of older Americans, a real sore point with many budget hawks – and with good reason.

“Warren Buffett has 75 percent of a prescription paid for by someone else,” says Stuart M. Butler of the Heritage Foundation, a long-time regular on the Wake-Up Tour.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who also spoke at the Kennebunkport program, said she had supported means-testing for the drug benefit. That support, she said, was a thankless job.

“People don’t come up to you and thank you for means-testing or cutting spending,” she said. Members of Congress, the Republican senator explained, tend to hear far more from people who want something more from the government.

“Every day I meet in my office with people who are asking for more,” Collins said.

And sometimes she doesn’t even need to go to her office for that. For example . . .

“We want health care!” chanted a group of several dozen sign-carrying demonstrators who gathered across the street from where the Kennebunkport program was held.

But while Collins did not get the means-testing she wanted into the prescription drug benefit legislation, she still seemed pretty enthusiastic when she announced her support for the legislation in 2003.

The bill, she said then, “represents the biggest expansion in the program’s 38-year history and an historic opportunity that may never come again and that we cannot afford to let pass.”

The resulting increases in federal borrowing, however, should serve as a cautionary tale as lawmakers and their constituents now consider further expansions in government benefits.

Some other historic opportunities may need to be put on hold unless they can be financed in more responsible ways. Otherwise we can just start bracing for the tsunami.

--Steve Winn, Communications Director