CHICAGO — Twenty or 50 years from now, the uproar over the House Intelligence Committee memo will be no more than a footnote to history, and many Americans living then will have fading memories, if any, of the Trump administration. But they will be sure to feel the consequence of other policies, little noticed now, that will weigh more heavily with each passing year.
You may have never heard of Irene Triplett, who illustrates something politicians often forget: Decisions made for immediate purposes can reverberate for a long, long time.
During the Civil War, to bolster military recruitment, the U.S. government established pensions for veterans wounded in battle and widows of those killed. After the war, the system was repeatedly expanded to cover ever more beneficiaries, including men whose disabilities had nothing to do with their service in uniform.
As economist John Cogan of Stanford University and the Hoover Institution notes in his new book, “The High Cost of Good Intentions,” Congress eventually granted pensions to widows of Union veterans who married after 1890. Then it included all widows whose marriages had lasted 10 years.
“In 1957,” he writes, “Congress dropped the 10-year requirement. Incredibly, a year later, Congress granted pensions to widows of Confederate soldiers.”
In 1924, Mose Triplett, who had served in both the Union and the Confederate armies, married a woman who bore him a daughter named Irene. Born five years later, she is still getting survivor benefits from the Civil War, 153 years after it ended.
Cogan’s book chronicles the steady growth of federal entitlements. Social Security was originally meant to ensure protection against poverty to about half of future retirees. But “every Congress, save one, and every president during the years from 1950 to 1972 took action to expand the program.”
The pattern is logical. New programs “confine benefits to a group of individuals who are deemed to be particularly worthy of assistance,” says Cogan. But groups outside the category push to be included and ultimately prevail. The change puts another group closer to qualifying, and that group does the same thing. The process repeats until the original rationale is lost.
Today, federal entitlement assistance of one type or another goes to more than half of U.S. households — and 31 percent of beneficiaries are in families whose income exceeds the national average. In 2015, households in the top fifth of earners collected $225 billion in federal benefits.
Restraining the cost of entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare is especially hard now. The ongoing retirement of the baby boom generation automatically swells their rolls. With a commitment to fiscal responsibility and regard for future generations, our elected officials might devise humane ways to curb this growth. But to the extent that commitment ever existed, it is gone.
It vanished on Dec. 22, when President Donald Trump signed a tax bill that the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projects will generate $1.8 trillion in additional deficits over the next decade — on top of the $10.2 trillion already in the pipeline.
The bipartisan watchdog group also says, “Congress is likely to consider increasing discretionary spending caps for the next two years, disaster relief to deal with last year’s hurricanes, (and) extensions of temporary tax provisions that expired at the end of 2016.” In that scenario, the extra 10-year deficits would be more like $2.2 trillion.
Conservatives claim the gap will force Congress to slash domestic spending. Fat chance. In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress could envision and reach a clear achievement: balancing the budget. But once that goal is hopelessly out of reach, politicians have nothing to gain from spending discipline.
Once deficits are considered the immutable norm, elected officials have every reason to enlarge them, delivering ever-richer benefits to current voters without charging those voters the full price. Much of the cost is deferred to future taxpayers, who have no say.
Since 2001, the federal budget has gone from a $156 billion surplus to a $440 billion deficit. Outlays, which then were 17.6 percent of gross domestic product, are now 21.5 percent of GDP. Deficits don’t constrain spending; they stimulate it.
Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have dreamed that 21st-century Americans would still be paying for pensions created under him. Our leaders, by contrast, know full well that the debt they are piling up today will be a burden on our descendants. When they look back, they may curse us.