Voters Need to Tell Presidential Candidates That Responsible Budgeting Is a Priority | Commentary

As former — and maybe reformed — elected officials, we know how much politicians like to talk about good news: tax breaks, infrastructure improvements, job growth announcements.

But they are far less interested in talking about the bad news and hard choices on the horizon as the federal debt continues on an unsustainable upward path.

Politicians don’t see big constituencies for that kind of news, and no special interests score them on whether they discuss it with voters. Even the close cousin of bad news — blunt talk — is usually avoided in politics.

Yet, politicians and voters alike should understand sacrifices will be necessary in the years ahead as an aging population, rising health care costs and a deeply flawed tax system put more and more pressure on the federal budget.

Only by acknowledging difficult budget realities can we hope to chart a better course that promises fiscal stability, a stronger economy and a brighter future for the country.

The short-term improvements in the deficit are just that — short term. Economists at the Congressional Budget Office and elsewhere agree the long-term outlook is bleak unless we take steps now to do something about it.

That’s one reason the Concord Coalition and the Campaign to Fix the Debt have come together to raise the issue during the 2016 presidential campaign under the nonpartisan label of “First Budget.” Concord and Fix the Debt have long been committed to fiscal responsibility, regardless of party affiliation.

Unless candidates for president are pressured, they’d rather not focus on the bad news about the national debt. But we will be in Iowa and New Hampshire with citizen activists engaging candidates on the subject. Congress has not been interested in addressing the issues, and it is critical that the next president comes into office with a budget plan that reflects the reality of the situation.

The federal debt is now the highest it has been in our history, other than during World War II. It’s true that short-term deficits have come down and Washington has enacted more than $4 trillion of 10-year deficit reduction to help stabilize the medium-term situation.

But the short-term improvement is mostly due to the economic recovery, and the enacted savings were largely in the parts of the budget that do not pose the greatest threat to fiscal stability.

As a result, the debt is continuing to increase and will likely exceed the size of the economy in the mid-2030s. Simply bringing debt levels down to 70 percent of gross domestic product within 10 years would require $2.2 trillion of additional deficit reduction, and would still leave debt at twice its pre-recession average.

Meanwhile, the growth of health, retirement and interest spending is crowding out important investments in education, infrastructure, and research and development.

We are asking candidates to acknowledge the problem and have a plan detailing what they would do. We also are asking that all options remain on the table.

This policy debate needs to be brought up by the grass roots. If citizens speak up, they will give candidates a safe harbor to discuss policy choices that politicians usually avoid. It will make candidates more comfortable laying out solutions that will require compromise from all sides.

After this exercise, candidates might see that the public is hungry for leaders who have bold plans and are willing to upend strict party platforms.

At the heart of our budget problem is the misalignment between the promises we have made and the available revenue to pay for them. We need bold presidential leadership to tackle this gap. First Budget will help make these bold actions possible by laying the groundwork so the next president has a mandate to act responsibly and create a sustainable budget.

If we waste another presidential term or two without addressing the debt, the steps ultimately will have to be quite severe. But if we help push this conversation into the 2016 campaign discourse, voters will be ready and the steps can be easier.

And that is good news.

Former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is a co-chairman of Fix the Debt. He and former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., are members of the Concord Coalition’s Board of Directors.

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