April 08, 2020

Congress returns to session with a problem similar to one faced by the Maine Legislature: an abundance of tax dollars and no agreement how to spend it. Unlike, Maine, however, the federal government has strict guidelines for the potential surplus, and members would be wise to stick to them.

The federal budget surplus is something for the future; President Clinton says perhaps within three years. Or perhaps not, if the economy does not cooperate. Nevertheless, an infinite number of ideas for spending the theoretical windfall have been suggested already, even before anyone knows how big the surplus will be. The increased revenue gives Congress the opportunity to play Santa Claus, handing out presents to voters whose thank-you notes would be most appreciated in the form of political support in the voting booth.

Congress should resist this temptation, for both fiscal and legal reasons.

Leon E. Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton and director of the Office of Management and Budget, points out that current law prohibits the use of any surplus to pay for tax cuts or new programs. Since passage of the 1990 budget agreement, which was ridiculed at the time but deserves credit for helping to create the potential surplus today, any new initiative must be paid for by new sources of revenue or additional savings. This restriction has gone a long way to impose financial responsibility on Congress. It should not be ignored now.

Besides, it is hard to celebrate the nation’s surplus when it also has a $5 trillion debt. Any surplus that eventually surfaces is already committed, again by the 1990 agreement, to reducing the debt. It is an unglamorous but responsible course that will pay off during the next down cycle in the economy. Maine has its own debt, through bonding, to consider, and reducing it deserves a careful review in the current session of the Legislature.

Talk of a federal surplus may seem farcical in a few years, if Social Security and Medicare continue to rise as expected. Federal number-crunchers predict that Social Security’s trust fund (used, by the way, to hide the size of the actual annual deficit) will start being used in just 13 years, as the Baby Boomers trade in their three-piece suits for golf attire. The high cost of medical care for people in their later years has been well-established.

Families, with any luck, face this same decision: There’s a little money left over after the bills have been paid. Does it get set aside for hard times or spent right away. If they’re smart, the hard-times piggy bank is fed whenever possible.

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