The Debt Ceiling Allowance

If the government doesn't have checks on its ability to spend others' money, extravagance results.

The public debt ceiling enacted by Congress for federal government spending is like a child’s allowance.

Elected or appointed officials who spend the money of taxpayers are deaf to pleas of frugality, just as a child spending parental funds effortlessly rejects parsimony. The debt ceiling, like a ceiling on a child’s allowance, responds to the extravagance that can be predicted when a spender is entrusted with other people’s money.

The Defense Department is a good example of this dynamic. Its books cannot be audited. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld complained on September 10, 2001: “According to some estimates we cannot track $2.3 trillion in transactions.” An Inspector General report found that the Pentagon cannot account for 25 percent of what it spends. The Marines’ F-35 fighter-bomber orders will cost a staggering $400 billion. The Navy pays $28 a gallon for biofuels to spur green technologies.

Financial watchdogs are the department’s stepchildren. A. Ernest Fitzgerald, an Air Force management analyst, testified before Congress in 1968 about a $2 billion cost overrun for the C-5A transport aircraft. Fitzgerald’s job soon disappeared in an ostensible reduction In force during the Nixon administration. His effort to sue the president for unconstitutional retaliation was stymied by the Supreme Court in Nixon v. Fitzgerald.

Every agency has its C-5A. The Department of Energy had a wasted billions on the now bankrupt Solyndra, while the GSA held an ostentatious Las Vegas retreat. Agency fame, stature, and promotions are the rewards of spending, not of leaving appropriated funds unspent.

In addition to blunting government prodigality, the public-debt ceiling protects those yet to be born from the carefree spending of the living and the dead. President George Washington’s Farewell Address articulates the case for budget austerity to avoid saddling posterity with a financial burden more properly assumed by their ancestors:

As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace . . . avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.

At present, Congress has irresponsibly set the public-debt ceiling at a stratospheric $16.4 trillion, or tens of thousands of dollars of public debt for every citizen. But the ceiling still endows the Congress with leverage over the president to scale back or terminate government extravagance and annual deficits exceeding $1 trillion as far as the eye can see. Without curtailing the budget deficit, the spending will bump against the ceiling in February 2013.

James Madison, father of the Constitution, saluted the power of the purse “as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.” President Obama is seeking to cripple the power by legislation that would delegate the debt-ceiling limit to the White House unless overridden by two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate. Congress should balk at surrendering another paramount constitutional authority to the executive branch, as it already has done with the war power.

The 113th Congress should brandish its debt ceiling power to diminish the current annual $1.2 trillion in national-security spending. It should align defense spending with genuine dangers to our sovereignty, as opposed to inflated threats. National-security expenditures should honor the creed: Billions for defense, but not one cent for empire or a quest for a risk-free existence. A national security budget of $500 billion would still dwarf the defense spending of any conceivable rival nation.

Entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and student loans, should be equally targeted for reductions, with grandfathering rules to protect current beneficiaries.

When making these hard choices, members of Congress should remember that the secret of happiness is self-esteem, and the secret of self-esteem is struggle. Character is tested and strengthened in times of disappointment or hardship.

Government entitlement programs impair psychological or emotional health and deform perceptions of reality. They induce recipients to believe that circumstances control destiny; that indolence and vice are not censurable; that hard work, ambition and abstinence are no more virtuous than sloth, aimlessness and debauchery. Entitlement programs inculcate feelings of helplessness, weakness and despair.

Recipients invent excuses for their plight to suppress healthy feelings of guilt or shame that would spur them towards self-improvement. They are denied the self-esteem derived from persistence in overcoming privation. Many succumb to drug addiction, obesity, illiteracy, alcoholism, or promiscuity.

Of course, private acts of charity to ameliorate genuine physical or mental disabilities or misfortune should be encouraged. The Good Samaritan is praiseworthy. But beneficiaries of altruism are not warped or arrested by an entitlement ethos.