Securing Future Fiscal Health

By Bob Kerrey and Warren Rudman
Monday, August 28, 2006

The economic and moral case for long-term reform of fiscal policy is clear. Yet politicians refuse to act. If this stalemate persists, it could end in catastrophe.

Over the next 30 years, spending on federal programs is on track to go up by 50 percent as a share of the economy. If revenue remain at their historical level, the resulting deficits will approach 20 percent of gross domestic product by 2036 -- almost 10 times the current size. The debt will surge to 200 percent of GDP -- twice what it was at the end of World War II.

Political realities explain why nothing has been done about this. Changing course would require substantial spending cuts from projected levels or equivalent tax increases. Neither party wants to be the first to propose these tough choices out of fear that the other side would attack it. Similarly, neither side wants to discuss possible compromises of its own priorities, out of fear that the other side will take the concessions and run. Unfortunately, these fears are justified.

Since the regular legislative process seems incapable of dealing with the impending crisis, some alternative has to be found. President Bush has suggested a commission. Having served on many commissions, we understand their potential value. We also understand how they can go wrong. In our view, a new commission could be very useful, but only if it recognizes fiscal and political realities. It needs five elements to succeed.

First, it has to be truly bipartisan. Any perception that the commission's purpose is to facilitate swift enactment of a partisan agenda would doom it to failure. It must have bipartisan co-chairs and equal representation. Doing otherwise in the current partisan environment would be a waste of time and money.

Second, it must have a broad mandate. While it is critical to control the growth of entitlements, particularly Medicare and Social Security, the commission should examine all aspects of fiscal policy.

Third, all options must be on the table. If either side sets conditions, the other won't participate. Republicans cannot take tax increases off the table, and Democrats cannot take benefit reductions off the table.

Fourth, the commission needs to engage the public in a genuine dialogue about the trade-offs inherent in realistic solutions. When people are armed with the facts and given the opportunity for honest dialogue, they are willing to set priorities and make hard choices.

Fifth, the commission's recommendations should be given an up-or-down vote in Congress, allowing for amendments that would not reduce the total savings. Absent that, the report would likely join many others on a shelf.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) have put forward a proposal that satisfies most of these elements. They would create a bipartisan commission with a broad mandate to examine long-term fiscal challenges. All policy options would be on the table. The commission would solicit input from the public and develop legislation that Congress and the president would be required to act on. Its work would address four key concerns: the unsustainable gap between projected spending and revenue, the need to increase national savings, the implications of foreign ownership of U.S. government debt and the lack of emphasis on long-term planning in the budget process.

A commission with these attributes could give all parties the political cover they need to tackle the tough choices and develop a bipartisan consensus for solutions. This would be invaluable regardless of who controls Congress or the White House.

In the end, of course, elected representatives, not a commission, will have to make the hard decisions. But a commission that produced solutions with meaningful bipartisan support would provide a catalyst for action. If Congress were required to vote on the commission's recommendations, opponents would be challenged to produce solutions of their own.

Advocates of extending tax cuts would be challenged to say how they would restrain spending enough to avoid cascading debt once the baby boomers begin to retire in large numbers. Those who oppose reductions in current entitlement promises would be challenged to say how they would fund those promises without squeezing out other priorities or raising taxes to unacceptable levels that could damage the economy.

The Wolf-Voinovich proposal has been greeted with silence or outright hostility. It deserves better. This is a serious proposal by two leaders who regard the debt burden and draconian policy options we are leaving to future generations as a moral stain on our nation's character.

To be sure, their proposal has shortcomings that must be corrected. Two improvements that are critical to the success of a commission are providing for bipartisan co-chairs and dividing the membership more evenly between parties than the current 9-6 split in favor of Republican appointments. These problems are not minor technicalities, but they could be fixed in negotiations with potential Democratic co-sponsors.

Time is running out to enact reforms. Wolf and Voinovich have come up with a credible way to get the process started. Any takers?

Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, and Warren B. Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, are co-chairs of the Concord Coalition.

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