The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
On the day when the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal debt could reach 185 percent of Gross Domestic Product by 2035, consider a bill introduced by two Arizona lawmakers, Senator John McCain and Representative Jeff Flake.
Carrying on a nearly two-decades-old tradition, the two GOP legislators have introduced the “Debt Buy-Down Act,” which would let taxpayers designate up to 10 percent of their federal income tax liability for debt reduction. Congress would have to cut specific programs by the aggregate amount of designated taxes or accept an across-the-board spending reduction.
McCain and Flake say their goal is to rein in federal spending and reduce the national debt. But it is little more than “feel good” legislation that abdicates Congress’s fiscal responsibility. The bill effectively says, “We in Congress can’t control spending so we’ll let taxpayers force us to reduce the debt.”
In today’s tea party environment, that approach may prove to be good politics but it’s a poor way to govern. A similar bill was first introduced in 1992; it went nowhere and more recent successors have met with similar fates. This incarnation should do the same.
Perhaps the bill’s biggest flaw, however, is that it would do nothing to stop Congress from increasing spending and running the debt up further. The bill would merely require Congress to reduce spending from whatever level it enacted. Thus, taxpayers could designate $1 billion to reduce the debt while Congress boosts spending by $10 billion.
Besides, why stop at 10 percent, and why limit taxpayer input to revenues? If Congress really wants to give taxpayers more say in the budget process, it should let people direct which specific spending cuts will offset the taxes they designate under the proposal. And why stop there? We could follow California’s lead and make spending and tax decisions by referendum. Let the people decide. It has worked so well in the Golden State.
The proper approach, of course, is for Congress to make its own budget decisions and stop trying to duck its responsibilities.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.