Whether it is the Green New Deal or a wall along the nation’s southern border, the 2020 presidential race is already teeming with expansive policy proposals and politicians seeking to differentiate themselves from the pack. If there is one theme that unites these proposals, it’s the expense. It’s not easy to excite voters with promises to cut programs, conserve money or increase taxes.
All the new proposals have their key constituencies, but what about some ideas that speak to all American taxpayers? The ever-increasing national debt is an issue that everyone should care about. While Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are unlikely to completely solve the problem overnight, there is an easy first step that would send a clear signal to the American people.
During the dark days of the financial recession a decade ago, a group of lawmakers came together with a shared interest in government financial reform. The bipartisan CPA and Accountants Caucus was formed to advance common-sense principles such as setting a budget and sticking to it. The timing was no coincidence, with billions of dollars in economic recovery money flowing out of public treasuries. Four years passed before the accounting group disbanded out of a lack of continued interest.
The nation is again in need of lawmakers who speak the language of accounting and finance. Many in the new class of the 116th Congress got elected by promising their supporters vast new spending increases. However, national debt figures from the Treasury Department already stand at a staggering $22 trillion, and when off-the-balance-sheet liabilities are included, the real figure is far higher.
Amazingly, federal accounting of the national debt ignores large sums of unfunded Social Security and Medicare benefits. The government doesn’t list these promises as debt. For the average American, this would be like putting together a household budget without considering their credit card debt.
If all the Social Security and Medicare promises were taken into account, the true national debt would instantly soar to more than $107 trillion. In other words, each taxpayer would have to pay $707,000 to make the government debt-free. Every American taxpayer should be aware of the way Congress and the administration keep the books.
The newly elected House leadership, including Pelosi, designated reforming PAYGO as one of the most important items on their agenda. PAYGO is a common-sense system of budgeting that allows Congress to approve spending only if it already has the funds. It’s like relying on cash, rather than a credit card.
Unfortunately, PAYGO isn’t as effective as it once was. Just recently, Congress approved the delay of about $800 million in budget cuts by simply moving the negative balance to the following fiscal year. This irresponsible fudging of the books defeats the purpose of a pay-as-you-go system. Continuing down the path pushes the mounting bills onto our children and grandchildren.
Many progressive Democrats staked out a position against Pelosi and PAYGO, because these reforms would create an obstacle to aggressive deficit spending. Both sides of the aisle must do their part to manage funds responsibly, because if deficits continue to roll into the next fiscal year, everyone will be hit with an automatic slashing of funds.
PAYGO needs expert input from a group like the former Congressional CPA Caucus to keep everyone on track. Budgeting and running the numbers is what accountants do. With at least eight CPAs currently serving in Congress, members need to once again convene this group of experts to help reform PAYGO and ensure the government’s books are accounted for correctly and to avoid the looming sequestration.
Sheila Weinberg, CPA, is the founder and chief executive of Truth in Accounting, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Chicago that researches government financial data. She wrote this article for CQ-Roll Call, and it was distributed by the Tribune Content Agency.