Zakaria: By doing nothing, Congress can accomplish a lot
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November 23rd, 2011
06:54 PM ET

Zakaria: By doing nothing, Congress can accomplish a lot

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Many are bemoaning the super committee’s failure, but I actually don’t see it as such a big deal. Those who are concerned about the budget deficit will see an automatic $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade starting at the end of next year. That’s more than anyone thought we’d get beforehand. And those who want tax revenues to increase will see the Bush tax cuts automatically expire at the end of 2012.

So if Congress does nothing, two sequestration processes go into effect: A budget cut and a tax increase. These two measures will cut over $4.5 trillion from the U.S. deficit over the next 10 years. That’s more than the Simpson-Bowles Commission proposed. And as Ezra Klein points out, that’s $3 of tax increases for every dollar of spending cuts. The Republicans' strategy of blocking every deal suddenly doesn’t look so smart.

I think that the real question we should be asking ourselves is whether or not we want these tightening, contractionary measures to occur now when the U.S. economy is still relatively weak. Better policy would be to delay the onset of cuts for a year or two until the economy begins to recover. As long as we can signal to the world, to markets and to ourselves that we have a serious, reliable process in place to deal with the deficit, there’s no immediate urgency.

As for the much-feared defense cuts – the $600 to $700 billion that will be whittled away from the Defense Department over the next 10 years - I don’t feel that this is as draconian as people think. Remember, we’re talking about cuts from an extraordinarily high starting point. As I noted in a Washington Post column back in August, the Pentagon’s budget has risen for 13 years, which is unprecedented.

Between 2001 and 2009, overall spending on defense rose from $412 billion to $699 billion, a 70 percent increase, which is larger than in any comparable period since the Korean War. And over the past decade, U.S. defense spending has gone from about a third of total worldwide spending to nearly 50 percent. In other words, we spend more on defense than almost all the planet’s remaining countries put together. So the fact that we’re going to go down from these peaks over a ten-year period does not worry me so much.

It’s also worth pointing that there is enormous waste in the Pentagon. Most talk of waste, fraud and abuse in government is vastly exaggerated; there simply isn’t enough money in discretionary spending. Most of the federal government’s spending is transfer payments and tax expenditures, which are — whatever their merits — highly efficient at funneling money to their beneficiaries. The exception is defense. There is so much overlap among the military services, so much duplication and so much waste that no one bothers to defend it anymore.

So even though people say the failure of the super committee is a sign that nothing will ever get done on the budget issue, the fact is that the exact opposite is true. Congress could have, of course, done much better. The upcoming cuts are not finely targeted or well-timed. But maybe that’s how American democracy is working right now. And until Congress can agree on a better plan, we can at least be thankful that by doing nothing our political leaders can accomplish quite a lot.

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Topics: Budget • Economy • From Fareed • Politics • United States

soundoff (248 Responses)
  1. Jamie

    "As long as the Dems continue to spend, spend, spend..." Huh? W and the REpubs controlled govt. for 8 years and now they also control the House of Reps which controls the purse strings. Guess who's been spending?

    November 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  2. bullet

    Remember when you were at the play ground in the 50s and 60s and the richest kids had the only balls, and they would say "if I cannot be the quarterback or the pitcher or bat cleanup I will take my ball and go home. well, that mentality is now ruling congress, and the spoiled kids are now congressmen and belong to the Republican party. To hell with all Republicans and some Democrats that vote with them.

    November 24, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Reply
  3. bullet

    I see where some blue collar workers are dissatisfied with Obama. that is O.K. But, if it means they are going to vote for a Republican or an Independent [if one runs] that is not O.K. There is an old saying that says "You had better dance with who brung you", and that is damn good acvice. If you think the Republicans brought the Unions and better wages and conditions, and benefits, you had better read your history books before you go to the polls.

    November 24, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  4. Deuce14

    I have to respectfully disagree with you, Mr. Zakaria. The problem is that for too long Congress has either done nothing, or the wrong thing. While it is true that I'd rather they do nothing than the wrong thing (again), it still is not good enough, and it isn't the reason they have been hired. They aren't doing their jobs – at least for the American taxpayer (but I'm sure their primary paychecks come from large corporations, lobbyists, and private interest groups, so who really cares about Joe Blow Taxpayer). Let's un-elect everyone currently serving, and see if the "new Congress" gets the message that the taxpayer, Republican, Democrat, Independent, or otherwise, is fed up with the Fed Gov and all of their BS.

    November 25, 2011 at 1:58 am | Reply
  5. Jimmer

    Correct me if I'm wrong but are these actual cuts or just cuts in the RAISES.......
    (per Ron Paul)?

    November 25, 2011 at 7:31 am | Reply
  6. Steve851

    Do nothing Congresses, overall, are the best, because the ones that change things usually make things worse. The author, however, is too optimistic. The Bush tax cuts will never totally lapse because that would be such a big tax hike on the middle class. 75 percent of the revenue lost from the Bush tax cuts were from the middle class.

    November 25, 2011 at 8:26 am | Reply
  7. Bill

    Well I guess it is a good thing the "Do Nothing" option was not "Invade Iran to distract the voters". Our government is gridlocked in partisan extremist politics arguably hurting the country and cannot compromise even when mandated to do so or even more chilling, intended/designed to fail from the start and the best analysis the author can come up with is that with a massive failure of our elected officials to solve the problem – it's all good ? Really ?

    November 25, 2011 at 8:39 am | Reply
  8. M. Vernon Charette III

    I am afraid you will neve see any of those cuts, its not in any politician's interest.

    November 25, 2011 at 10:35 am | Reply
  9. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociatesInc,Int'l Intst'r

    so why does the revenue tax departments have science laboratories and phoney research development. what is it doing in the tax department. in different cities. it looks like all the phoney research labs are part of the government laboratories and siphoning money for phoney research.
    it may be that the zantac/ranitidine i have been taking is the cause of my crippleness pain in the limbs. it may do what lipitor does to you but from a different biochemical activity development. in suppressing completely acid reflux the medicine may be cutting important stomach enzymes and acids needed to kill certain bacteria, which end up perhaps permeating the rest of the body and not staying in the stomach. so you forfeit stomach bad upsets and become crippled instead. another may be that it has some other damaging strictly chemical side affect. i have to discontinue it and advise you do the same if you are on it which many had to do because of i don't know what that caused the acid reflux severe stomach discomfort to begin with yet.

    November 25, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  10. Hmmmmm........

    The super committee was never intended to solve anything. As a matter of fact, it did exactly what both parties intended it to do: nothing.

    It is going to be a very, very nasty election year.

    November 28, 2011 at 6:12 am | Reply
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