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Goldmark: Sharpen those budget scalpels

Photo Credit: TMS illustration by Michael Osbun

There was grim news last week from the eminent diagnosticians at the Congressional Budget Office. Basically, we're about to undergo the fiscal equivalent of a quadruple bypass right after the Nov. 6 presidential election.

In the two months following the election, four no-escape fiscal deadlines -- think of them as anticipated cardiac events -- will be triggered. The Bush tax cuts will expire. The payroll tax cuts, meant to stimulate the economy, will expire. The automatic budget sequesters (think of them as huge cuts), enacted as part of the messy budget deal in the summer of 2011, will take effect. And it will almost certainly be necessary to raise the national debt ceiling.

The only question at that point is whether the patient will expire from the combined impact. Addressing these issues all together means our legislators will be tinkering with the very heart of our national fisc. That's a challenging surgical intervention, both for the patient and for the doctors performing it. It would be a delicate operation under any circumstances, but the past performance of this Congress, particularly the Republican majority in the House, does not inspire much confidence as they approach the toughest test they've faced.

We'll need three things if the patient is to come out of this in good shape.

First, realistic thinking about our national fiscal situation.

Second, an end to the inflammatory sloganeering and voodoo economics that have characterized the budget debate to this point.

And third, a willingness to compromise.

Until Nov. 6, we won't know exactly how lame the lame duck Congress will be when it wrestles with this formidable quartet of problems. But many congressional districts are gerrymandered to protect incumbents, so the vast majority of the House will probably be re-elected. Thus, now is the time for civic groups and voters to begin asking the candidates to spell out their stands on these four issues.

Here are some of the rough numbers involved. They are drawn from publicly available estimates, but all are approximate because there isn't universal agreement on methodology.

The current federal operating deficit -- the amount by which spending exceeds income -- is $1.3 trillion.

The expiring Bush tax cuts would bring in more than $100 billion annually, 70 percent of it from the wealthiest taxpayers, who are likely to be the focus of the fiercest partisan arguing.

Another $100 billion a year would come from the end of the temporary cut in Social Security and Medicare taxes that was aimed at boosting the economy. It was a dubious idea to begin with; neither program is well-funded, so why reduce the dedicated revenue flows into those systems when the entire national fiscal framework is wobbling?

The "automatic" sequester (budget cuts) that were put in place last summer would reduce annual spending by an additional $100 billion, about half coming from the defense budget.

How much the ceiling on the national debt will have to be raised is hard to predict. The controversy about raising it at all arises because the House Republicans have said they will insist on cuts greater than the amount of the debt increase. Our national debt at the moment is over $15 trillion -- a number that numbs the mind. For the first time in many decades, our national debt is larger than our total annual economic output.

No doubt about it, this is going to hurt. The operation is already scheduled and the location of the operating theater is known -- it's the Capitol in Washington. The good news is that the surgeons work for you and me. The bad news is that we're their patient as well as their employer.Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.