“A problem correctly defined is half solved.”
— Charles Kettering, former head of research at General Motors
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What is the main problem with our federal government? The main problem is that most of the 535 members of Congress are more concerned with getting re-elected than solving the big problems of our country.
What is the solution? Term limits for Congress.
If members of Congress knew they had a finite amount of time to change things for the good of the country, they would spend more time solving big problems and less time raising money to get reelected.
Look at the president. Regardless of party, the president tries to change something for the good of the country because there are only two terms, or eight years, to make a difference. For President Donald Trump, it was getting our allies to pay more for their national security so we could spend less on the world and more on the United States. For President Barack Obama, it was changing health insurance so that more people have it and so that insurance companies pay for pre-existing conditions.
Here are two big problems Congress hasn’t fixed: Social Security funding and federal overspending.
Social Security funding
Social Security was passed into law in 1935. It was originally intended to be a safety net for people who lived beyond life expectancy (age 65 in 1935). The problem is Congress did not index the Social Security “retirement age” of 65 to actuarial tables. Meanwhile normal life expectancy in the U.S. has grown to age 79 in 2020.
The Social Security Administration estimates that it will not be able to pay all the benefits it is obligated to pay starting in 2037. We have known about this funding problem for decades. One solution is to increase or eliminate the taxable wage cap of $137,700. By the way, the taxable wage cap does at least increase every year under current law. It just is arguably too low or shouldn’t exist at all. Another solution is to gradually increase the Social Security “retirement age” and index the retirement age to actuarial tables.
Why have 84 of the last 85 Congresses ignored the Social Security funding problem? Because Congress knows the quickest way to get unelected is to change Social Security. They have talked about it for decades, but the only time they changed Social Security to address the funding shortfall was in 1983.
The federal government had revenue of $3.4 trillion in fiscal year 2018. We spent $4.5 trillion for a net loss of $1.1 trillion. Spending $1.1 trillion more than we brought in wouldn’t be so bad if it happened only once. Thing is, it has been going on for 10 years. The total federal deficit over the 10 years from 2009 through 2018 was $11.3 trillion, or an average of $1.1 trillion per year. This situation would be like if you or I made $100,000 but spent $132,000, and did it for 10 years in a row. It would be impossible, and yet we collectively did it as the USA!
Why have 10 of the last 10 Congresses ignored the federal overspending problem? Because Congress knows the quickest way to get unelected is to cut spending. Our total federal debt now stands at $23 trillion, or about $70,000 apiece for the 331 million people who live in the United States.
Why do most of the 535 members of Congress want to stay in Congress? As previously mentioned, they get to spend about $4.5 trillion a year (which again is about $1.1 trillion more than they should be spending, but bear with me). That works out to $8.4 billion apiece, per year. No wonder they want to stay in power!
Meanwhile, big problems like Social Security funding and federal overspending don’t get solved year in, and year out.
What is the solution? Term limits for Congress. Limit the House of Representatives to six two-year terms (12 years) and the Senate to two six-year terms (12 years). Congress then would spend more time solving big problems like Social Security funding and federal overspending, and less time raising money to get re-elected. Not a new idea, but one whose time has come.
John R. Torvik, of Savage, is a certified public accountant. He’s at email@example.com. On Twitter: @jrtorvik.