Christopher Hildebrand contributed to this post.
While Congress continues to debate how much to cut this year from non-security discretionary programs – which constitute only 12 percent of the federal budget – Senators Scott Brown (MA-R) and Bill Nelson (FL-D) have introduced the “Taxpayer Receipt Act of 2011,” based on a proposal put forward by the think tank Third Way last year, aimed at better informing the public both about how their tax dollars are spent and the sheer magnitude of America’s debt problem.
Under the Brown/Nelson bill, the IRS, acting in conjunction with the Department of Treasury, would be required to issue each taxpayer a “receipt” detailing how much his or her tax dollars are funding various government functions and the size of each American’s share of U.S. debt. The receipt will break down each taxpayer’s total tax payment into twenty to thirty notable categories. Americans will be able to see, in other words, exactly how much of their individual tax dollars they contributed towards Social Security, national defense, Medicare, education, etc.
By displaying clearly how the federal government is spending each individual’s tax dollars, hopefully Americans will become more educated about the makeup of the federal budget. A series of recent polls have highlighted just how out-of-touch much of the American public is regarding the size, scope, and make-up of the budget. In fact, one of these polls found that Americans think that 25% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid – when in reality, that number is less than 1%.
Senators Brown and Nelson should be applauded for their efforts to educate the public. Issuing “taxpayer receipts” can provide American citizens with a broader understanding of federal spending, and help demonstrate that major entitlement programs – not discretionary spending, or (shocker!) foreign aid – are the major drivers of large national deficits.
As historian Niall Ferguson warns, “Alarm bells should be ringing very loudly in Washington.” However, it’s difficult to sell the American public on the need to reform the big entitlement programs when many people believe that the government spends most of its money on foreign aid and “waste, fraud, and abuse.”
By clearly laying out the size and scope of our debt, maybe the “taxpayer receipt” can make those alarm bells ring in the homes of the American people.