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Dear winning candidates: Welcome back to a daunting deficit

November 14, 2018

It didn’t take long for reality to sour the victory celebrations of Wisconsin’s winning congressional candidates.

The very morning after last week’s elections, the Congressional Budget Office issued a sobering report on the federal budget. It’s a critical issue that didn’t get enough attention during the fall campaigns.

The annual federal budget deficit during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 was $779 billion. That’s up $113 billion from the previous year, and it would have been even higher — $823 billion — if not for the timing of some federal payments, according to the CBO.

Just as bad: The annual shortfall is expected to approach $1 trillion next year, with that budget hole widening in future years.

Our elected officials in Washington can’t let that continue for long without risking bankruptcy. For starters — and at a minimum — Wisconsin’s current U.S. senators and representatives should avoid making the nation’s finances any worse during a coming lame-duck session. Then the new Congress should seek bigger solutions next year. Otherwise, the nation’s total debt of $21.7 trillion will continue to pile a higher financial burden on our children and grandchildren.

Part of the problem stems from the Republican Party’s generous tax cuts that aren’t paying for themselves, the Concord Coalition noted this week. The coalition is a budget watchdog group led by elder statesmen from both political parties.

At the same time, Democrats and some Republicans have resisted reasonable adjustments to entitlement programsto make them sustainable. For example, with Americans living so much longer than they used to, a gradual and slight increase in the retirement age — only for younger people who aren’t close to retiring yet — should be acceptable. Moreover, higher spending on the military shouldn’t be sacrosanct.

The economy is strong, which is good. Yet it’s not providing much new revenue. During the last fiscal year, revenue rose by less than 1 percent while spending is up 3.2 percent, according to the CBO. That doesn’t come close to balancing.

The State Journal editorial board was disappointed with the limited ideas for fixing the nation’s finances from both candidates for U.S. Senate during recent meetings. Republican challenger and state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, who lost the race, touted a balanced budget amendment, which sounded gimmicky. At least U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, was able to cite something more specific — allowing Medicare to negotiate better prices for the huge volume of prescription drugs it buys. That should save some money, and it’s something Republican President Donald Trump has talked about, too.

Wisconsin’s congressional delegation should start there. Then build to bigger bipartisan deals. A budget fix is badly needed before the economy turns.

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