Iowa plays a unique role in our nation’s politics and public policy-making. As a result, we sometimes feel inundated with politicians and political talk.
So it seems unfathomable that we need more talk. Yet, we do.
We need serious talk from our Iowa candidates for the U.S. Senate and House about what former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called the greatest threat to our national security — namely our unsustainable long-term national debt. And we need all the would-be presidents visiting the state to discuss that debt as well.
Our national debt is insidious. It just keeps growing — faster than our economy. It keeps consuming more of our nation’s wealth. Interest on it keeps taking an ever-larger share of our nation’s budget.
Over the next decade, under current law, the U.S. government will add $7.2 trillion to the debt — a figure that could reach $9.5 trillion under reasonable assumptions about future policy decisions. That would all be on top of the current debt, which at well over $17.8 trillion is already high by historical standards.
We all know the truth: We cannot continue down this path. Most candidates for office agree. Yet, they are afraid to discuss the issue seriously.
Political “talking points” won’t bring down the debt. No war on “waste, fraud and abuse” will wipe away our red ink. We can’t cure the problem just by cutting foreign aid and taxing the 1 percent. Those steps just won’t be enough.
The big ticket items — Social Security, pensions and health care programs, with the ongoing large spending increases driven by demographics — are the driving force of our spending, and reform of those programs must be on the table. Tax subsidies and “corporate welfare” must be cut.
If polls are any guide, Americans won’t support enough cuts in spending to bring our income and outlays into balance. So that means taxes will also be part of the solution.
The longer we ignore the problem, the harder it will be to solve. There is no silver bullet. A combination of revenues and spending changes has to be considered.
We need candidates who are willing to tell the truth, who will talk to voters about why we need to keep all options for addressing the national debt on the table, and who are willing to “take the heat” and lead on this issue after the election.
We should support candidates who discuss this issue seriously and don’t reflexively attack an opponent for suggesting ways to constrain the debt. We should challenge those who simply attack and don’t offer real solutions.
As an issue, the debt is now in the background. That is partly a response to the good news: The short-term debt outlook is improved. Deficits are coming down from their post-World War II highs.
But there is bad news: The Congressional Budget Office predicts the improvement will be short-lived, perhaps another year, before again we see escalating annual deficits, reaching $1 trillion around 2024.
This basic trend is not in dispute. The Congressional Budget Office, the president’s budget office and the Treasury Department all have similar projections.
The conventional wisdom is that Republicans refuse to give ground on revenue and Democrats refuse to budge on entitlements.
While there is some truth to those generalizations, the bigger impediment is that the spirit of compromise is missing. Without that, Congress will get nowhere on this issue.
No side is going to reduce the debt with only its favored solutions. Everyone will have to give. Everyone will benefit if we do so.
THOMAS TAUKE, was a Republican congressman representing Iowa’s 2nd District from 1979 to 1991. LEONARD BOSWELL was a Democratic congressman representing Iowa’s 3rd District from 1997 to 2012. Contact: email@example.com.