Tim Penny: Presidential Candidates Must Address our Debt

Note: This op-ed was originally published in The Hill.

After a year in which the country was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy and the federal deficit surpassed the $1 trillion mark for the third straight year, you would think that the number-one priority for the president and Congress would be to put America’s fiscal house in order. But instead, both sides seem content to sit on their hands -- at least until the election is over -- while the Treasury issues more and more IOUs.

That’s unfortunate, because the most important issue facing our nation is our worsening debt situation, and we are rapidly running out of time in which we can restore fiscal sanity on our terms, rather than allowing an economic fiscal crisis to occur.

Federal deficits and the national debt threaten not only our economic security. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs retired Admiral Mike Mullen has stated, “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” Whether you prioritize cutting the number of people on welfare or cutting individual tax rates, expanding access to health care or expanding the size of our military, protecting the environment or protecting our borders, fixing the debt crisis must be job one.

What do we need to do? For starters, bring deficits down to a manageable level of less than 2.5 percent of GDP. At the same time we need to set a course to bring the debt back down to a sustainable level where it is no longer growing faster than the economy. To achieve this we must reform the most problematic parts of the budget including health and retirement programs, and the tax system. All told, this will require savings of $4 - $6 trillion over a decade, depending on your starting point.

In order to set this country on a path towards strong economic growth and to ensure our future security, we must address our debt crisis in a way that eschews the gimmickry and incrementalism that Washington is known for. Voters around the country are serious about America’s debt crisis and they deserve real actions, not half-measures or budgetary sleight-of-hand.

So far, none of the candidates for President have put forth a detailed plan for how they would bring the debt down to sustainable levels over the next decade, let alone over the next presidential term. At the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, we run U.S. Budget Watch, to keep an eye on the costs of the candidates’ fiscal promises. Last week we released our first analysis of the four Republican candidates’ fiscal plans. A similar analysis of President Obama’s proposals will follow.

The goal of USBW is to put the issue of how to cut the deficit at the forefront of this year’s election. That way, we might actually come out of the election with a mandate. Otherwise, as we have seen in too many elections past, we are likely to come away with promises of what not to do—don’t cut Medicare, don’t touch Social Security, and don’t raise revenues. Well guess what, it is pretty close to impossible to fix the problems without doing all of those.

The USBW project challenges candidates to put forth the specifics they favor to get our debt back on a sustainable path. Moreover, we hope to encourage the contenders not only to lay out their favorite plan but to talk about where and how they would be willing to compromise. Because in the end, any debt deal will have to be done with bipartisan support, and nobody is likely to get their first choice.

The country is at a crossroads. The ideas that are presented in this election will lay the foundation for either action to prevent an otherwise inevitable fiscal crisis, or more of the same -- delay, finger-pointing and partisan gridlock. That is why we need to “watch” and listen carefully to what our presidential candidates are saying.

Tim Penny is a former Minnesota Congressman and one of the co-chairs of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.