President Trump recently waffled, fussed but finally signed into law a 2,200 page, $1.3 trillion omnibus budget law that will keep the government operating till September, provide substantial increases in military spending, support new cyber security initiatives, and build a section of “the wall ” that Trump considers essential to the nation’s security and prosperity.
While doing all that and a lot more, the new law is expected to raise the 2019 deficit to $1 trillion, making the deficit the largest pool of red ink since World War II. Once again, we hear strong talk about doing what is necessary and important while silently asking unborn future taxpayers to pay our bills.
As he complained mightily about the law’s size and omissions, the president pointed out that because of its length and last-minute rush to completion, so as to avoid a government shutdown, no one had time to read the complete act, and of course, he had not read it either.
Is it strange that the nation’s leaders and representatives of the sovereign people would pass a law, any law, without having read and debated it? Is it at all reasonable that our lawmakers might deliberately pack a budget bundle and then purposefully delay it to the last minute — just so no one would have time to read it? Is it all accidental? Or is such political behavior to be expected and indeed rewarded?
Let me argue on the side of purposeful human action — not about accidents. Stay with me and let me explain:
Consider the reluctant signing, but signing nonetheless, of a $1.3 trillion unread but swollen budget bill with the frequent outbursts we hear about Cabinet members — in some cases former Cabinet members — who travel in chartered planes instead of flying commercial. They sometimes arrange for their spouses to accompany them — at government expense, later to be reimbursed — when traveling abroad. And some find it necessary to buy a $31,000 custom mahogany dining room set in order to better serve the nation’s forgotten men and women.
Savvy politicians know that we ordinary folks get it and don’t like it when the activity in question seems to relate to luxurious living on the public dime. This is the kind of stuff that we understand; it brings letters to the editor, provides fodder for Rotary Club speeches, and yields red-faced commentary on the White House lawn.
Yes, we interchangeable voters get hot under the collar about $100,000 government expenditures but lack the time, expertise and energy to read or even think about a $1.3 trillion budget bill, especially when we — the presently living and breathing citizenry — will not have to pay for it.
This last point is the clincher. Incentives matter. We the living can obtain a free lunch now, to be paid for by a truly silent generation of unborn taxpayers to be determined at some far-flung date in the future. Meanwhile, we don’t want to hear about $31,000 dining tables, lest it spoil our collective appetite.
So given the incentives at play, what’s the forecast?
There will be more bundled legislative packages that are too large to read, lots of huffing and puffing politicians who apologize but end up signing the legislation into law, and larger deficits added to a tab to be paid by our posterity. Our purposeful politicians will continue to strain at gnats while swallowing fiscal camels whole.
Bruce Yandle is a distinguished adjunct fellow for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, dean emeritus of the Clemson College of Business and Behavioral Sciences, and a former executive director of the Federal Trade Commission. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.