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Opinion

October 1, 2013

Budget tomfoolery courts real harm

Some day soon — we can only hope — Congress will work seriously on the nation’s long-term budget dilemma.

At some point — you’d think — these elected leaders would tire of brinkmanship over whether and how much to extend the nation’s borrowing limit so the U.S. can pay its bills and issue Social Security checks.

None of that is happening now, but optimists can imagine that it will one day.

The saddest part about the back-and-forth between the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, Republicans of one stripe and Republicans of another stripe, this past week has been that none of it even begins to solve the most serious U.S. budget problems.

The $4 trillion spending plan that expires at midnight Monday itself is narrow in scope, and discussions in both the House and Senate would keep it narrow.

The bill approved by the House on Sept. 20 would authorize spending only through Dec. 15, and the bill passed by the Senate on Friday would cut that back to Nov. 15.

There are significant budget problems even in the short term. The across-the-board automatic spending cuts known as sequestration are a mindless abomination of budgeting.

It is even more inexcusable that it comes as the economy is struggling to grow. This is a time for smart budgeting, not dumb budgeting.

But the real problems are long-term. Annual deficits, and long-term debt growth that can strangle fiscal progress, are projected to rise significantly in coming years as more and more baby boomers draw Social Security and Medicare benefits.

There are legitimate disagreements about what kinds of tax and spending policies would constitute the best approach to unsustainable trends, but continuing to spend so much time and energy narrowly focused on the short term can only lead to disaster.

Finally, Congress has developed a bad habit of toying with real harm to the economy every time the nation approaches the limit on its borrowing capacity.

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