The Language of the Budget is Designed to Destroy Debate

Charlie Arlinghaus

April 9, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

I hesitate to say this but Washington should be more like Concord. Discussions about federal budget and policy changes take place in a language completely divorced from reality and designed quite purposefully to keep anyone from figuring out what is going on. Language and culture matter. The language of Washington creates a culture designed to make us all cynical and apathetic.

My thoughts are spurred by the idiotic language used to describe Paul Ryan’s budget proposal but you don’t need to agree that Ryan’s plan is positive to see the stupidity embraced by the language of Washington. They could do with the slightly plainer speaking of Concord (or probably any other locale separated from D.C. by reality).

In Concord, part-time legislators discuss budgets in terms that resemble reality. To this day, “cut” is the term used to describe a decrease in spending. For example, if spending one year is $100 and it actually declines in the next year to $95, we refer to that as a cut of 5%. One person may like that cut and one may not but both know what happened. Because the language resembles reality, you and I in the general public also know what happened.

In Washington, though, no one has a clue. This is a general statement not in need of much clarification.

Remember the congressman trying to understand food stamps by buying one single egg for $1 and being surprised at how expensive they are? The guy who buys eggs one at a time at outlandish prices is the one doing budget policy while you and I and the other 300 million Americans who buy them twelve at a time at a tiny fraction of the price sit and wonder why these people are so fiscally insane.

Anytime anyone talks about even the slightest fiscal restraint, we leave the English language behind. Consider the Ryan budget proposal.

Washington can’t and won’t make actual cuts. The budget is never cut. But once in a blue moon someone wants to grow a little slower. Under current law, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that government outlays will grow by an annual average of 5.4% for the next ten budgets. The difficulty with that is that revenue will only grow by 5% and we would spend, over 10 years, $8 trillion more than we take in.

That’s okay because Congress doesn’t actually have to balance the budget. It’s only the little people and states who have to do that. Overpaid people with giant staffs who do most of their work for them so they can concentrate on buying one egg at a time don’t play by the same rules.

So Paul Ryan – who, let’s be honest, is something of a spoil sport here who probably has no understanding of the individual sale egg market – decides to make a change. His plan would increase spending slightly less quickly than revenue grows so that in ten years the budget would balance.

This is described in Washington-speak as “slashing federal spending.” His plan for outlays averages 3.5% annually instead of 5.4%. The budget grows every year. It grows faster than the rate of inflation even. But apparently inside the District of Columbia, slightly slower growth is the same as slashing.

The budget language is a barrier that keeps politicians from acting and keeps you and I from caring. If any change is a slash no one will propose meaningful change. Worse, the word slash steals the headline and mutes both the substance of the problem and the substance of the solution. So the general public pays no attention to the unmentioned substance.

In fact, solutions are not debated because the problem is not accepted. Washington hasn’t had to balance so politically they can’t. The most important debate to resolve is the necessity of balance and a mechanism to force that balance on misbehaving politicians.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and the GOP Congress got into a bidding war about how fast to balance the budget. Because left and right agreed that budget must be balanced they were. We must try to create a new bidding war.

As the next presidential cycle begins and candidates flock to our fair state, our best hope is that Hillary Clinton and her Republican challengers try to one up each other on balance. If both parties campaign on a balanced budget and agree to one in ten years we may finally debate the substance of how to get there.