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U.S. Department of the Treasury

Charles Lane: Shackled by 'dead men'

In theory, the American people's elected representatives decide every so often how much to tax the public and how to allocate the revenue among various priorities, both short-term and long-term. In practice, however, Congress and the president have almost no such fiscal latitude. The vast majority of anticipated tax proceeds, roughly 80 percent at present, are already committed to be spent — on programs such as Social Security and Medicare and in interest on the national debt — before the House and Senate convene each January. By 2023, the figure will approach 100 percent if current trends continue. Consequently, the federal government would have to borrow its entire...