All of the political squabbling over Obamacare, shutting down national parks and whether the debt ceiling really means anything has been a bit like arguing over the arrangement of the deck chairs.
The iceberg still looms.
This latest episode of budget brinkmanship exposes the failure of Congress and the White House in addressing the root cause of much of our political dysfunction — annual federal budget deficits and our rapidly growing national debt.
The federal budget hasn’t been balanced since 2001. The government spends more every day than it takes in, and a day of reckoning approaches.
Americans can handle the truth, but our political leaders need to speak plainly about what lies ahead. Decades of adding programs without the taxes to fund them means that all Americans will share in the pain of paying down the debt.
Waiting means the pain gets worse.
After four straight years with $1 trillion-plus budget deficits, taxpayers can no longer afford to let politicians ignore the problem.
In 2001, the national debt was 33 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product — the output of all goods and services produced. The debt now equals more than 70 percent of GDP and in a decade will exceed 100 percent, the Congressional Budget Office forecasts. Net interest on the debt costs more than the budgets for the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Interior, Justice and State combined. That’s no way to govern.
Population trends show more danger on the horizon. Each American 65 and older today is likely to be supported by nearly 4½ working adults, government estimates show. By 2038, the number of retirement-age Americans will be supported by less than half as many working-age Americans, just 2.2.
That’s a road map to Greece, not to economic prosperity.
The CBO spelled it out for lawmakers last month: “The unsustainable nature of the federal government’s current tax and spending policies presents lawmakers and the public with difficult choices.”
But many politicians, to secure their employment, continue to tell the American people what they want to hear, that they can pay less in taxes and get more.
It is time to accept that any meaningful action on the debt will require spending cuts, benefit changes to programs people care about and tax reform.
That cannot simply mean raising taxes. Reforms that involve taxes must be economically sound: They should result in a fair, pro-growth system that gives businesses the long-term predictability they need in order to plan, invest and create new jobs.
The goal of entitlement reform should not be to shred the federal safety net but to preserve it for current and future generations. Changes almost certainly will have to include Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly, and Medicaid, government health insurance for the poor and the disabled. Social Security, too, will require difficult steps to strengthen its solvency.
Our shared national debt has grown regardless of which party was in charge. No faction owns this. We all do. Literally. Each American’s share of the debt right now totals more than $53,500.
The Obama administration has added more than $6 trillion to the debt, while George W. Bush’s added nearly $5 trillion. Both celebrated years with smaller spending deficits as victories, but in each of those years the federal government still spent more than it took in.
There is talk around Washington about the possibility of a revived “grand bargain” between House Republicans and President Barack Obama. If such a plan addresses unsustainable increases in spending and starts Congress down a path toward a more modern, predictable tax code and renewed economic vigor, those talks should be embraced.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson — a debt hawk if ever there was one — told Congress straight up: “If you spend more than you earn, you lose your butt. And if you spend a buck and borrow 42 cents of it, you’ve got to be stupid.”
That was two years ago, when the national debt stood at “only” $14.8 trillion, or about $48,000 per citizen. Since then, your share and that for each of your kids and grandkids climbed by nearly $5,500.
That should be enough to focus Washington’s attention on serious discussions over spending, debt and righting the ship of state.