A Lonely Warning On Debt
The hardest question any Washington reporter faces these days, whenever talking with voters outside the capital, is simply: Can I believe anything I'm told by those politicians in Washington -- or by the press?
The cynicism in the public is thick enough to cut with a knife. People are tuning out on the president, on politicians -- and on the press.
That is what makes it newsworthy when a public official, speaking on the record, sets forth a view that is as blunt and uncomfortable as it is politically unpalatable.
Without further ado, let me then quote extensively from a speech delivered May 3 on the floor of the Senate by George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio -- a speech that, by the way, drew almost no comment from his colleagues or from the apparently benumbed press corps.
Voinovich began by pointing out that when he came to the Senate in 1999, "the national debt stood at $5.6 trillion. Today . . . the national debt stands at $8.4 trillion . . . an increase in the national debt of about 50 percent."
Bad as that is, he said, worse is to come. "The retirement of the baby boom generation will put unprecedented strains on the federal government . . . . According to the reports from Medicare and Social Security trustees, the trust funds for these programs will be exhausted even earlier than previously thought. . . . If we leave reform of entitlement programs for future Congresses to solve, as well as a mountain of debt to pay off, it will have devastating consequences on the economy and on our children and grandchildren."
Voinovich, as mayor of Cleveland and as governor of Ohio, faced deficits and dealt with them by trimming spending and raising revenue. It was from that experience that he cautioned colleagues who think there is an easier way.
"Some members believe that the solution is to grow the economy out of the problem, that by cutting taxes permanently, the economy will eventually raise enough revenue to offset any current losses to the U.S. Treasury. I respectfully disagree with that assertion. . . . In November 2005 former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan testified before the Joint Economic Committee and told Congress: 'We should not be cutting taxes by borrowing.' . . . Instead of making the tax cuts permanent, we should be leveling with the American people about the fiscally shaky ground we are on."
Voinovich said that while the government is not coming close to paying its current bills, it is also not meeting its obligations to the future. Investment in transportation and infrastructure and in training the next generation of workers is far below the level needed to maintain America's competitive position in the world economy.
Voinovich finished with these words: "I have to say this, and I know it is controversial, but if you look at the extraordinary costs that we had with the war and homeland security and Katrina, the logical thing that one would think about is to ask for a temporary tax increase to pay for them. Did you hear that? Ask for a temporary tax to pay for it, instead of saying we will let our kids take care of it; we will let our grandchildren take care of it.
"No, we are not doing it. The people who are sacrificing today in this country are the ones who have lost men and women in our wars. The people who have sacrificed today are the ones who have come back without their arms and legs -- thousands of them. They are making the sacrifice.
"The question I ask is, what sacrifice are we making? Anyone in the know who is watching us has to wonder about our character, our intellectual honesty, our concern about our national security, our nation's competitiveness in the global marketplace now and in the future, and, last but not least, our don't-give-a-darn attitude about the standard of living and quality of life of our children and grandchildren.
"The question is, are we willing to be honest with ourselves and the American people and make these tough decisions?"
The answer from Congress was to pass a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for capital gains and dividends -- a $70 billion package that mainly benefits those with annual incomes over $200,000.
Voinovich was one of three Republicans who joined most Democrats in opposing the budget-buster. His candor is unfortunately not contagious.