In these times of fiscal insanity, the US desperately needs as many moments of clarity as it can get. One way to get an institutionalized moment of clarity on federal spending is to explicitly state which programs are paid for by our own tax monies and which programs we pay for by borrowing money. The most important programs go into the paid for budget and the stuff that’s nice to have goes into the borrowing budget.
There is little cost associated with this process. All the same spending will happen except that instantly all the incentives change. Getting a spending item into the paid for budget makes it secure. It is a statement that we are willing to pay taxes to do this activity. Getting a spending item into the borrowing budget means that if there is a fiscal crisis (and at this point that’s more a when than an if) we would all have a first order screen that we could instantly use to focus our cuts on the stuff that Congress determined was not as important.
Another very good effect on our politics is identifying where do interest payments go, in the paid for or borrowing budget. Every US consumer knows in their bones that if you’re paying off your debts with borrowed money, you’re in deep, deep trouble. So where would Congress put debt interest payments? By putting them into the paid for budget, they inspire confidence but at the same time this decision would push many more programs onto the borrowing budget.
As a separate process, a bipartisan committee (similar to the successful BRAC committees that cut defense spending in the 1990s) could take the borrowing budget and provide a yearly fiscal sanity bill that took the borrowing budget and identified cuts to distribute fairly across the nation and across all the low priority programs in an intelligent way.
But even without an institutionalized spending cut process, this change would improve things by setting priorities and getting the spending conversation where it should be, is program x, y, or z worth borrowing money to fund.