The 1st rule of holes

Posted: Mar 31, 2004 12:00 AM

The shrill pitch of my 2-year-old's voice was nearly deafening. There was no mistaking his mood ? the kid was mad. Although the angry 2-year-old is now 15, I remember the scene as if it was yesterday.

My husband had been digging fence-post holes in the backyard, and although they were relatively small holes to an adult ? roughly 30 inches deep ? they were about the height of my son. Nick had been dancing precariously around the edges of the hole with his own little plastic shovel when ? plop! ? he slipped in.

Given that the hole was only about 12 inches in diameter, he was stuck. All I could see was the top of his little bobbing head. My 2-year-old knew it was time to stop digging, and start trying to figure a way out of the mess he'd gotten himself into. His method for getting out? Scream bloody murder until somebody heard and acted.

Someone needs to tell Congress about the First Rule of Holes: If you're in one, stop digging.

We're in one, all right ? and not some pint-sized hole either. Federal spending is out of control to the point where America is dangerously close to disappearing into a bottomless pit.

In the last year, federal spending topped more than $20,000-per-household-per-year.

Dig, dig, dig.

"Discretionary" spending ? not what we spend on defense or homeland security or Social Security or Medicare, but what we spend on what we call "programs" ? has increased by double-digit percentages each of the past three years.

Dig, dig, dig.

Many of the same lawmakers calling for spending restraint also plan to vote to expand highway spending by 72 percent, and to increase special education spending by 151 percent, and to restart unemployment benefits despite the fact the economy is growing and workers are finding jobs again.

Dig, dig, dig.

This must change. We have to stop digging. We have to stop making things worse, and start trying to figure out a way to get out of the hole.

Throw down the shovel and stop digging: It's the first of the five suggestions my Heritage Foundation colleague Brian Riedl offers in his recently released paper, "How to Get Federal Spending Under Control."

Once the digging has stopped, Riedl offers four steps to getting out of the hole.

First, balance the budget by 2014 without raising taxes. There's only one way to do that: Cut federal spending dramatically. Economic growth requires pro-growth tax relief. Pro-growth tax relief requires that spending be in check. This isn't easy ? every program that receives federal funds has supporters who will fight to keep the funds coming. But it's not complicated, either. It requires growing a backbone and saying no.

Next, freeze discretionary spending for 2005. President Bush's 2005 budget is a promising step in the right direction here. But discretionary spending has grown 39 percent between 2001 and 2004 and is expected to increase another 7 percent this year. Do all these agencies really need another 7 percent? Couldn't they at least wait a year for another huge increase?

Congress and President Bush must do what responsible American families do every year: Set priorities (like homeland security) and reduce spending elsewhere.

The next step for Congress is to reform entitlements. Given that "required" spending consumes two-thirds of the budget now, it's a fantasy to think of balancing anything without also reforming the system. Entitlement programs ? Medicare, including the 2003 drug bill, anti-poverty programs, the subsidy-laden 2002 farm bill ? are expected to grow 6 percent per year for the next decade. We can't balance the budget in 2014 if this trend continues.

The final step, as Riedl points out, is to fix the budget process: "The current budget process provides no workable tools to limit spending, no restrictions on passing massive costs onto future generations, and no incentive to bring all parties to the table early in the budget process to set a framework." Instead of digging, Congress should start building real, meaningful, concrete spending caps and start filling up all the loopholes.

America has fallen into a hole that we've helped Congress dig. It's time to throw down our own shovels, and start ranting and raving until Congress also stops digging and starts figuring out a way to get us out of this mess.

We all must acknowledge up front that getting out of the hole will be tough, dirty work. Every program has a constituency, and every cut will offend somebody. Special-interest groups will whine and complain ? they've been experts at demanding government handouts while decent Americans have remained politely quiet as we fall deeper and deeper into the sinkhole. Like my 2-year-old up to his eyeballs in a hole, we've got to start screaming bloody murder.