Alan Simpson & Maya MacGuineas: Too much debt, not enough solutions

Alan Simpson is a former Republican senator from Wyoming, former co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles Fiscal Commission, and a member of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Maya MacGuineas is the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. They wrote an op-ed for The Denver Post. It is reposted here.

In 2010, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (commonly referred to as "the Simpson-Bowles commission") spent months studying the fiscal trajectory of the country and came to these unavoidable conclusions: Our fiscal challenges are real. The solutions will be painful, and there is no easy way out. Everything must be on the table and Washington must lead.

These conclusions remain true today and, unfortunately, in the last five years, lawmakers have been lurching from crisis to crisis without addressing the long-term debt.

Our gross national debt is now over $18 trillion — a number so large it's difficult for many Americans to conceptualize. To put it in some context: If you spend a buck a second, you wouldn't hit a trillion for 32,500 years. And if you spent a million a day since the birth of Christ, you wouldn't be at a trillion yet. And America is $18 trillion in the hole.

A debt that is forever projected to keep growing faster than the economy is simply unsustainable. Since 2007, our debt held by the public has more than doubled as a share of the economy from 35 percent of GDP to 74 percent today. If we continue on our current course, the debt will grow even larger and exceed 100 percent of GDP by 2040, according to the Congressional Budget Office. As the debt rises, so do interest rates for individuals and the government — making it harder for the average American to buy a home or start a new business.

To be sure, there has been some progress made in recent years. Deficits — the difference between federal spending and revenue in a given year - have fallen by about two-thirds since the Great Recession, from $1.4 trillion in 2009 to $439 billion in 2015. But if you torture statistics long enough, eventually they'll confess. The truth is that deficits are projected to go back to over $1 trillion in the next 10 years, possibly sooner. And our debt held by the public as a share of the economy is at the highest it has ever been other than around World War II, and is projected to keep growing.

Stabilizing our long-term debt and putting it on a downward path should be a high priority for the 2016 presidential candidates and the coming Republican debate here in Denver on Oct. 28 is an important opportunity for them to address this issue in a serious way.

The failure to get our debt under control, fix our tax code, and put entitlement programs on a more sustainable fiscal course is robbing us of the ability to invest in our future. The more money we spend on interest on the debt, the fastest growing part of the federal budget, the less we have available to invest in the next generation. In 2017, we will spend about $300 billion on interest payments and more than $750 billion by 2025 — or about the current combined federal spending on defense, education, and medical research.

There is no perfect or easy solution to our fiscal challenges. Many of the 2016 presidential candidates have proposed massive tax cuts that will add trillions of dollars to the debt, and some claim that economic growth will somehow take care of the lost revenue. The reality is we cannot exclusively grow our way to a balanced budget, neither can we exclusively tax our way out of deficits.

What we need to hear from the candidates is a responsible long-term deficit reduction plan that strengthens our entitlement programs for future generations, reforms the tax code in a progressive and pro-growth manner, and increases high-priority investments in areas that will create jobs. This is the kind of approach that was laid out by the Simpson-Bowles commission.

The Simpson-Bowles plan isn't perfect and doesn't have all the answers, but it offers a comprehensive solution to our long-term debt by reducing the deficit by enough to put the debt on a downward path relative to the economy. It also proves that bipartisan support for an ambitious deficit reduction plan is possible - as demonstrated by the five Democrats, five Republicans, and one Independent who voted in favor of the plan.

That's the kind of bipartisanship we need to fix the debt. And now is the time to do it. The modest sacrifice we refuse to make today only forces far greater sacrifices of hope and opportunity upon the next generation.

"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do no necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.