BRAC as a Model For Solving Our Long-Term Debt Issues

America will erase its deficit. We are extremely good at coming together in the 11th hour and solving incredible problems (it always helps being the world’s largest economy by far). My purpose here is to explain how we might do so earlier than later—so as to save ourselves from the crippling interest payments that would follow.

The most recent deficit came to just under $2 trillion. Let’s be clear: The United States’s deficits and looming debt problems are overwhelmingly the result of three things: (1) military expenditures, (2) Medicare and Medicaid, (3) and Social Security. 63%, or just more than $2 trillion of the current federal budget is attributable to those sources. Additionally, from now until 2032, Social security is projected to grow by 127%, Medicare by 235%, and Medicaid  by 224%. Wasteful spending is not the cause of our debt problems—we could be taken over by Switzerland and they would still have to grapple with the three budget behemoths.

I’m not a budget expert, but I know for sure that we will not solve our deficit with our current legislative system. If nothing else, seniors make up for an increasingly high percentage of the voting population. A vote to sharply reduce benefits from any middle class program is a sure path to reelection defeat.

So how do we solve this? I suggest we take a hard look at the 1990s Base Relocation and Closure (BRAC) Commission. BRAC was established by Congress as a means to bring about reductions in military bases following the end of the Cold War. The Commission would create a list of military bases to either close or relocate and Congress could vote only up or down to the recommendations in their entirety. They were not allowed to amend the recommendations. The Commission was created because military bases are great local economy boosters and, therefore, no congressman would ever vote to close a base within their district. Thus, when a base in their district was shut down, elected officials could blame someone else.  More than 350 military installations have closed since 1989, the year of the first BRAC round.

Reforming Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, then, will require something similar to BRAC.

Imbedded in this discussion is something deeper. Isn’t the success of BRAC something of a lesson in democracy? In this respect, I agree with Fareed Zakaria in his assessment that democracy is good, but it does not follow that more democracy is always better. BRAC is a patently undemocratic and hyper-elitist construction—it would do no good for me to write my congressman and ask him to keep my base from closing. The decision is made by an elite group of nine military leaders in a commission that is sealed off from congressional input. Once the decision is made, my congressman is virtually locked into approving the decision.

Systems like BRAC are especially advantageous when (1) the most necessary decisions are the least politically palatable ones, (2) the methodology and reasoning for the decisions are unlikely to be understood by the average voter, (3) the solutions require broad expertise and resources, and (4) the benefits from the decisions will not be felt within the current election cycle.

Our budget issues fit with little effort within this framework.  If congress fails to act on the growing size of our entitlement programs, we will end up with a government that is little more than an insurance company with a military.


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