Op-Ed: Let's Reform the Real Cause of National Debt

The Arizona Republic | January 21, 2013

One thing I learned during my 22 years of serving in Congress is this: When the chips are down, Republicans and Democrats can come together. We did it in the first Gulf War to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. We came together with great national unity and resolve after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But now, a decade later, there is no greater threat facing our country than the mounting national debt.

Simply put, over the long-term, the skyrocketing trajectory of our national debt is unsustainable. At $16 trillion dollars, our debt is roughly equivalent to all the economic output of our nation over an entire year. Our rising debt threatens our standard of living and the resources we will have in the future.

Pick what’s important to you — whether it is federal highways, national defense, education, or just keeping a low tax burden — and then think about how servicing the bloated debt will slowly eat away at whatever you decide is most important. Rising debt will drain resources from the private economy and reduce the amount available for critical programs within the federal budget.

We will be unable to get our debt under control by merely taking pinches out of “domestic discretionary spending” — the budget category that covers everything from food inspectors to housing vouchers to national parks. That represents just 18 percent of our budget but contains the money used for many important programs that aid the least fortunate among us.

Nor can we rely on cutting the holy trinity of “waste, fraud and abuse.” If there was a simple way to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse that would fix our problem, don’t you think politicians would have jumped on that a long time ago and taken credit for it?

Instead, we must focus on reforming the real drivers of our debt — entitlements and our broken tax code.

About 45 percent of government spending goes to three programs — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But, this percentage will keep growing at an ever faster rate as our population ages unless we are willing to rethink how they could work better and more fairly for all generations.

As for the tax code, while our rates are, even in the wake of the recent “fiscal cliff” deal, moderate compared with many other countries, our tax laws are riddled with loopholes, exemptions and deductions, which curb government resources while creating inefficiencies in our economy.

That’s the long-term problem. We have another, more immediate problem. Though our elected leaders in Washington managed to restrain the country from tumbling off the fiscal cliff, one part of the deal they made was to merely delay the nearly across-the-board national security and domestic program “sequestration” spending cuts — cuts that would cost Arizona 50,000 jobs if they are allowed to go into effect as scheduled in March.

Only a program that addresses both sides of the ledger — spending and revenue — is a credible solution to our out-of-control debt. President Obama and members of Congress need to come together to craft such an agreement.

We need to let our political leaders know that now is the time for long-term solution to our growing debt problem. Consider adding yours to the 340,000 names already attached to the Citizen’s Petition at FixTheDebt.org to urge passage of a comprehensive plan that will address our short- and long-term fiscal challenges.

Though it may appear that chances for agreement are bleak, my time in Congress has led me to believe that when Americans know we must act, we can accomplish great things. With the path forward just as clear as the consequences of inaction, I firmly believe that if we reach a bipartisan agreement that brings us to the other side of this crisis, a stronger nation and a brighter future for our children lies ahead.