Opinion

Opinion: How to Fix the Debt Once and for All

President Ronald Reagan warned of the dangers of rising national debt, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and former New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg write. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

By ED RENDELL and JUDD GREGG

President Ronald Reagan warned of the dangers of debt when it rose past $1 trillion for the first time just 34 years ago.  Soon, the national debt will break the $20 trillion mark.

As sobering as that fact is, it’s just the next step on a frightening path. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently warned that our debt is beginning to grow rapidly again and is projected to rise more than $10 trillion over the next 10 years, reaching $30 trillion by 2027.

When that occurs, our debt as a percent of our economy will have risen from 77% of GDP today to 89% of GDP in 2027 — on the way to 107% of GDP by 2035, which exceeds our all-time historical high set during World War II.

As a result, interest payments on the debt will total more than $750 billion a year in just 10 years, crowding out just about everything else including significant military spending and almost all domestic spending that creates a safety net for vulnerable Americans.

This projected growth is based off of current law. Shockingly, policymakers in Washington are focused not on correcting this unsustainable and harmful course, but rather on tax and spending plans that will further add to the debt.

Unfortunately, our existing budget procedures and the current political climate are ill-equipped to produce solutions for our debt. Both parties have contributed to the problem, and leaders in both are unwilling to ruffle feathers and make the tough choices needed.  A realistic plan to seriously deal with our debt — from healthcare and Social Security to major tax reform — will require bipartisan compromise that Congress currently seems unable or unwilling to make.

But there is a way forward that will produce the kind of results and progress needed on these complex and politically charged problems:  A bipartisan commission.

Yes, we tried this before when we established the Simpson-Bowles Commission in 2010. The Simpson-Bowles commission recommended a thoughtful mixture of spending cuts, tax reform, and entitlement reform that had the bipartisan support of 11 of its 18 members and would have probably solved our nation’s fiscal outlook once and for all.

Unfortunately, while many elements of the Simpson-Bowles plan did pass, Congress didn’t enact enough of it to make our health and retirement programs solvent, nor reverse the unsustainable long-term growth of our debt.

The problem with Simpson-Bowles was that the commission wasn’t given any real teeth — there was no requirement that Congress actually vote on its recommendations.

But with gross debt surpassing $20 trillion, it’s time to try again.

What we need is to follow the path blazed by the Base Realignment and Closure Act, or BRAC, which set up a non-political process to close military installations and then put the full set of recommendations to a vote in Congress.

Everything would have to be on the table for negotiation. No tax break or government program could be too sacred to at least merit discussion. And whatever is agreed to would be guaranteed an up or down vote. No avoiding the tough choices. No endless debating. No face-saving amendments. Just a vote.

The Simpson-Bowles Commission showed that a bipartisan solution is possible, and that if liberals and conservatives engage in principled compromise they could put together a package that both sides see as a win.

Establishing a new fiscal commission — one with real power — would be an important first step to putting our fiscal house in order.  Before our nation crosses another debt milestone that leaves us little choice at all.

Ed Rendell is the former Governor of Pennsylvania. Judd Gregg is former U.S. Senator from New Hampshire. They are the Co-Chairs of the Campaign to Fix the Debt.

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