Everyone in Congress Wants to Tackle the Debt: Here’s How

This op-ed was originally published at the Washington Examiner on January 23, 2018.

Thanks to the historic tax reform passed by congressional Republicans at the end of last year, the economy is booming. Even better, the job market is exploding, and fewer workers are receiving unemployment benefits than at any point during the last 44 years.

What better time to reform welfare than when the economy is relieving the pressure on these programs?

This isn’t just a conservative issue. Increasingly, leaders from both parties have expressed concern about the ballooning of these programs. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he would vote against tax reform if we added one penny to the deficit. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., began a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times expressing worry about “add[ing] one penny to our deficit….” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said our debt “will fill our children and grandchildren’s boat with additional debt.” Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., was gravely concerned about “explod[ing] our nation’s deficit.”

This bipartisan support may come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t. It’s a bipartisan acknowledgment of a bipartisan problem. No matter which party is in power, we seem unable to keep spending under control. Welfare spending (as opposed to earned entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare) has gone up under both Republican control (3.5 percent on average) and Democratic control (13.7 percent on average).

These leaders’ recognition of this reality is most welcome, if long overdue. We have been in a debt crisis for many years, but we are currently marching toward financial ruin. If we’re going to make recent tax cuts sustainable, we must be willing to make spending cuts as well.

That means confronting one of the biggest drivers of the debt. Welfare spending is set at about $927 billion per year – about one-quarter of federal outlays.

We cannot tinker around the edges. Our economic and fiscal well-being requires making tough choices. It is possible to cut strategically while making improvements to programs like these, streamlining them so they do more for people in need while costing less.

Take welfare reform in 1996 as an example. One of the major reforms was a work requirement for welfare. This did not mean beneficiaries had to be working, but it did mean that if they were capable of doing so, they had to actively be making an effort to find a job. These and other reforms actually helped to reduce the poverty levels: In 1996, we cut welfare spending, and the number of single parents and children in deep poverty decreased from 5.5 percent to 2.5 percent in 2007.

Many congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle profess support for work requirements, so this may be a good place to start negotiations about reforms. Regardless of how talks start, however, they need to start – and soon. If Democrats do not support significant spending cuts to balance the budget, they will be exposed as hypocrites for their bluster about deficits during tax reform. Any Republicans who do not support significant spending cuts will be exposed as hypocrites for their years (in many cases, decades) of campaign promises.

We do our fellow Americans no favors by keeping them trapped in the cycle of unemployment or continuing to fund inefficient programs that don’t actually help people in need. Let’s hope House Republicans will make good use of their majority and design legislation that helps taxpayers, businesses, and workers alike.

Jason Pye (@pye) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is the director of public policy and legislative affairs for FreedomWorks.