Op-Ed: Don’t Believe Myth That Debt Problem is a Myth

The Weekly Wonk | October 10, 2013

Last week, the government of the richest and most powerful nation in the world shut off its lights and closed its doors. As a result, 800,000 federal workers were immediately furloughed; new patients were turned away from NIH clinics; the national parks were closed to visitors; and economic growth is expected to slow by a quarter to a half percentage point in the fourth quarter of 2013.

This disruptive and completely unnecessary shutdown follows 7 months living under “sequestration,” an across-the-board cut to many of the important functions of government that followed the failure of the bipartisan Super Committee to reform the nation’s fiscal policy. And to make matters worse, we are only days away from reaching the nation’s legal debt limit which, if not raised, will require us to default on some of our obligations.

In the context of all this short-term turmoil, while officials are wrestling with whether the lights will be on and whether the nation’s bills will be paid next week, it may seem strange to want to talk about our long-term fiscal situation.  But we have to – immediate issues and long-term challenges are intertwined. Until policymakers recognize the importance of addressing our long-term debt situation, it is difficult to see how we avoid jumping from short-term crisis to short-term crisis.

There is a dangerous and pervasive myth in Washington that our debt problems have been solved – that we no longer need to worry about growing entitlement costs. This myth leads many Democrats on the left to falsely assume any call for deficit reduction is a call for job-killing austerity, Republicans on the right to shift their focus away from entitlement reform to oil pipelines and medical device taxes, and policymakers to opt for mindless sequestration over strategic spending cuts, and government shutdowns over commonsense budget agreement.

It is true that we have made substantial progress in addressing our short- and medium-term debt. In combination with the economic recovery, a number of spending cuts and tax increases enacted over the past three years have helped to stabilize debt levels as a share of the economy for the next five years. Yet temporary stability does not suggest a permanent solution. Though growth has slowed, our debt levels are the highest as a share of the economy they have been since the aftermath of World War II. At roughly twice the historical average, our extraordinarily high debt levels put us at substantial risk if interest rates rise and leave little flexibility if new needs or emergencies arise.

More frightening, our debt levels are likely to begin growing again sooner rather than later.  As health care costs continue to grow faster than the economy and the large baby-boom population enters retirement, the costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will balloon and revenue simply won’t keep up.

The result: debt is projected to exceed the size of the economy by 2035, double the size of the economy in the 2060s, and triple it in the 2080s.

The myth that we no longer have a long-term debt problem is doing a disservice to the next generation of Americans who will ultimately pay the price in those coming decades for our inaction today.

A failure to address this growing debt will translate into stagnant wage growth, threaten the value of retirement accounts, raise interest rates on all types of loans, reduce the government’s ability to respond to new needs and emergencies, and increase the chance of an eventual crisis.

The progress we’ve made would reduce the chance of such a crisis, but not by nearly enough. As my old boss Erskine Bowles likes to explain, our leaders have done the easy stuff – raising taxes on the top 1 percent of Americans. They’ve done the sneaky stuff – capping defense and non-defense discretionary spending so future lawmakers can identify the specific cuts. They’ve even done the stupid stuff – allowing a deep, abrupt, across-the-board cut to all the programs not responsible for our growing debt through so-called “sequestration.”

But what our leaders haven’t done is the hard stuff – reform our tax code and entitlement programs. What our leaders haven’t done is worked together to reach principled compromise on a plan that neither side loves, but both know would be a win for the American people.

The solutions are relatively straightforward: bend the health care cost curve by improving the way we pay for medicine and changing incentives for providers and beneficiaries; make Social Security solvent by slowing the growth for wealthier beneficiaries, adjusting for growing life expectancy, and bringing in new revenue from those who can afford it; reform the tax code by cutting many of the $1.3 trillion of annual tax preferences and using the money to lower rates and deficits; and replacing the mindless cuts of sequestration with thoughtful cuts to wasteful and low-priority programs.

These solutions are not easy, to be sure. They require Democrats to take on their base and pursue entitlement reforms. They require Republicans to break their pledges and support new revenue. And they require both sides to put the next generation ahead of the next election.

But they are possible.

Despite the dysfunction in the halls of Congress, efforts to design and agree to these changes are already underway. The President’s budget took an important step by putting a number of entitlement changes into his budget, including the adopting of the chained CPI which would switch to a more accurate and slower inflation index for calculating Social Security COLAs, changes in the tax code, and various indexed provisions in the budget.. The relevant Committees in both Houses are taking another important step by looking at ways to reform and replace the so-called “sustainable growth rate” (SGR), which threated to cut Medicare physician payments by about 25 percent. And perhaps most encouragingly, Republican House Ways & Means Chairman Dave Camp and Democratic Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus are working together to enact the first comprehensive overhaul of our tax code in over a quarter century.

The true test will be whether these efforts can be joined and ultimately enacted into law. Every bipartisan effort to reduce the deficit – the Simpson-Bowles Commission, the Domenici-Rivlin Commission, the Boehner-Obama discussion – found that the best way to get a budget deal was through shared sacrifice. Everyone has to be part of the solution, and all policymakers has to be willing to put their own sacred cow on the table. The retirement age must be on the table. The mortgage-interest deduction must be on the table. The defense budget must be on the table. And payments to Medicare providers and beneficiaries must be on the table.

Congress has an opportunity to do right by the American people. But they have to stop the madness, start talking, and solve the problem. And they need to begin now.