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Debt Menace Grows, but Pols Only Fight Each Other

In the movies, when a giant meteor is hurtling toward Earth, the United States manages to unite on strategy to stop it, though the effort usually requires an action hero.

But in the real world, we’ve known for years that a debt bomb is hurtling toward the U.S. economy. Instead of uniting to stop it, though, our leaders are fighting each other over whether to fire a rocket (spending cuts) or a laser (tax increases).

In the real world, the bomb’s approach is actually accelerating. And we don’t have an action hero to rescue us from fiscal catastrophe. If we did, he’d say, “Fire everything we’ve got.”

I first heard the line “we have to bring entitlements under control or we’re going to be in trouble” from Alan Greenspan — when he was chief economist in Gerald Ford’s White House in the mid-1970s.

That was the first meteor warning I can remember. Since then, the alarm has been sounded more urgently by the year — by economists, White House officials of both parties and Members of Congress.

Their message: Benefit promises made to retirees under Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — plus interest on the debt — will eat up the entire federal budget, leaving nothing left for investment in education or infrastructure.

Moreover, the debt will lead to an inflated currency, high interest rates, crippling taxes, a lower standard of living, a declining U.S. competitive position in the world and — as one expert put it this week — “fiscal slavery” to China.

And, still, nothing’s been done. Even when Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot forced both parties to pay attention to the federal budget deficit in the 1990s — and when President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress balanced the federal budget and projected paper surpluses — the long-term debt bomb kept on coming.

Even as President George W. Bush ran up higher debt with tax cuts, unpaid-for wars and the Medicare prescription drug benefit (which Democrats wanted to be bigger), he proposed Social Security reform and a debt commission.

Democrats torpedoed both. Now, President Barack Obama is running up the debt even faster — with a stimulus program to fight Bush’s deep recession and new entitlements for college students and the uninsured, plus tax cut extensions — but also wants a deficit commission.

And, no surprise, now Republicans are refusing to play. In the most outrageous act of irresponsibility in memory, seven Republican Senators last month killed a bipartisan commission proposal they had previously co-sponsored.

If and when the debt bomb explodes, their names deserve to be memorialized in infamy: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) in the lead, along with Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), John Ensign (Nev.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), James Inhofe (Okla.) and (perhaps joining McConnell in the lead) supposed deficit-hawk John McCain (Ariz.).

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