GAO Chief Warns Economic Disaster Looms
Saturday, October 28, 2006; 9:32 PM
AUSTIN, Texas -- David M. Walker sure talks like he's running for office. "This is about the future of our country, our kids and grandkids," the comptroller general of the United States warns a packed hall at Austin's historic Driskill Hotel. "We the people have to rise up to make sure things get changed."
But Walker doesn't want, or need, your vote this November. He already has a job as head of the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress that audits and evaluates the performance of the federal government.
Basically, that makes Walker the nation's accountant-in-chief. And the accountant-in-chief's professional opinion is that the American public needs to tell Washington it's time to steer the nation off the path to financial ruin.
From the hustings and the airwaves this campaign season, America's political class can be heard debating Capitol Hill sex scandals, the wisdom of the war in Iraq and which party is tougher on terror. Democrats and Republicans talk of cutting taxes to make life easier for the American people.
What they don't talk about is a dirty little secret everyone in Washington knows, or at least should. The vast majority of economists and budget analysts agree: The ship of state is on a disastrous course, and will founder on the reefs of economic disaster if nothing is done to correct it.
There's a good reason politicians don't like to talk about the nation's long-term fiscal prospects. The subject is short on political theatrics and long on complicated economics, scary graphs and very big numbers. It reveals serious problems and offers no easy solutions. Anybody who wanted to deal with it seriously would have to talk about raising taxes and cutting benefits, nasty nostrums that might doom any candidate who prescribed them.
"There's no sexiness to it," laments Leita Hart-Fanta, an accountant who has just heard Walker's pitch. She suggests recruiting a trusted celebrity _ maybe Oprah _ to sell fiscal responsibility to the American people.
Walker doesn't want to make balancing the federal government's books sexy _ he just wants to make it politically palatable. He has committed to touring the nation through the 2008 elections, talking to anybody who will listen about the fiscal black hole Washington has dug itself, the "demographic tsunami" that will come when the baby boom generation begins retiring and the recklessness of borrowing money from foreign lenders to pay for the operation of the U.S. government.
"He can speak forthrightly and independently because his job is not in jeopardy if he tells the truth," said Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.
Walker can talk in public about the nation's impending fiscal crisis because he has one of the most secure jobs in Washington. As comptroller general of the United States _ basically, the government's chief accountant _ he is serving a 15-year term that runs through 2013.
This year Walker has spoken to the Union League Club of Chicago and the Rotary Club of Atlanta, the Sons of the American Revolution and the World Future Society. But the backbone of his campaign has been the Fiscal Wake-up Tour, a traveling roadshow of economists and budget analysts who share Walker's concern for the nation's budgetary future.
"You can't solve a problem until the majority of the people believe you have a problem that needs to be solved," Walker says.