January 1, 1981

The Budget Cuts?Some Modest Proposals

(This commentary appeared in the January 1981 issue of Tax Features.)

In the wake of an election so heavily influenced by economic issues, the federal budget cuts must occupy a prominent place on the front burner of both the Reagan Administration and the 97th Congress. The Budget’s size, its rate of growth, its delineation of national priorities—these and other issues must be dealt with. At the risk of stating the obvious, it seems worthwhile to suggest a few guideposts for making the Budget a more effective tool of fiscal discipline and for bringing the Budget into balance as soon as possible:

  • Any effective cuts will be painful. Our bloated public sector will not lose weight easily. Our decision-makers, with a degree of resolution and political courage not usually demanded of them, must ask their constituents—and all Americans—to swallow a bitter pill if they want to get well.
  • Sound fiscal policy—not politics—must guide the selection of cuts. This means grappling with the so-called “uncontrollables,” off-budget items and still other programs which, however popular with special interests, are leaching the health out of our economy.
  • Cuts must be bipartisan. Republicans would like to start a “new era.” Democrats would like to limit that “era” to the next four years. No matter. Getting a handle on the public sector and unleashing the inherent healthiness of the private sector must take priority over political strategy aimed at 1982 and 1984.
  • Cuts must be swift. The honeymoon in Washington is always short. Our leaders must act while some ardor still remains. Early cuts, however painful, will be more readily accepted and will hasten the convalescence of the economy.
  • Cuts must be fair. Vendettas have no place. Just as we must put a lid on the pork barrel, we must make sure that no group shoulders an unfair portion of the burden.
  • Maintaining an orderly progression through the stages outlined in the 1974 Budget Act will convince the public that their leaders mean business. Submerging the timetable in partisan squabbles or pork-barrel politics will only intensify disillusionment and further destabilize the orderly conduct of the economy.

There is a saying in management: “Don’t let the urgent cause you to lose sight of the important.” There is urgent business on every desk in Congress as well as in the Oval Office. Putting out fires, however, must not obscure the awareness that our ultimate goal is to keep the house from collapsing.

Robert C. Brown was Executive Vice President of the Tax Foundation.