The Need for Permanence (Rick Crawford Commentary)

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  

George Santayana’s observation is as relevant today as it was over 100 years ago, and I fear my colleagues in the U.S. House have not taken it to heart. 

Over the past three decades, our nation’s debt has skyrocketed from $908 billion, or 33 percent of the economy, to more than $16 trillion, or 103 percent of the total U.S. economy. Congress has attempted to address the mounting debt problem by either passing laws to restrict spending (budget control acts) or non-binding budget resolutions that purportedly do the same except without the effect of law. 

The result of these efforts is self-evident. Debt and future obligations for entitlement spending have exploded. Between 2000 and 2010 both parties went on an entitlement-expansion binge adding more than $30 trillion (present value) in unfunded promises, even with the knowledge that Social Security and Medicare are insolvent. 

Over the past 30 years, entitlement spending has grown from 25 percent of federal spending to almost 60 percent today. The Congressional Budget Office notes that in 12 years, entitlement spending and interest on the debt will exceed 100 percent of all federal revenue. This means everything we spend on national defense, homeland security, FAA, national parks, education, road construction, etc., will have to be borrowed or eliminated absent major reform.   

Does Congress remember the abysmal failure of the recent past? One in which non-binding budget resolutions and budget control acts not only didn’t eliminate deficit spending for any meaningful period but also arguably opened the door for massive entitlement expansion? I fear not.

I voted against the non-binding budget resolutions last week because I believe it is time to do something different. Let’s assume for a minute that the Republican budget documents were enacted without change. Sure, the deficit would be eliminated — for a brief time. But then what? History demonstrates that absent permanent structural change to how Congress conducts business, there will be an immediate snap-back to deficit spending and entitlement expansion. In the past, we saw the overall budget problem grow much worse in spite of the short-term, non-binding “fix.”

For whatever reason, Congress cannot seem to kick the spending-binge addiction. Until we recognize this, we are, as Santayana noted, condemned to repeat it. 

In the 1990s Ross Perot led a valiant effort to push Congress to pass permanent spending controls that would have avoided this mess. Sadly, the Balanced Budget Amendment failed to pass in the U.S. Senate by one vote. Since then Congress has given it little more than lip service. 

If America is to have resources available for national defense, homeland security and other priorities, Congress must get serious about passing permanent spending controls. Repeating the past is not only unsustainable, but is a clear and present danger to our economy, national security and freedom. 

(U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford is a Republican representing Arkansas’ 1st Congressional District. He serves on the Agriculture Committee, where he is chairman of the Livestock, Rural Development & Credit Subcommittee, and on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.)