Stumping for Attention To Deficit Disorder

David M. Walker's Fiscal Wake-Up Tour highlights the rising cost of government health-care and retirement benefits.
David M. Walker's Fiscal Wake-Up Tour highlights the rising cost of government health-care and retirement benefits. (By Chris Carson -- Associated Press)

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By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007

TAMPA -- The numbers make Joseph Farrell's head swim. Billions and trillions of dollars, numbers too immense to comprehend. But the central message, delivered by a band of Washington budget experts traveling the country to raise an alarm about the nation's financial picture, hits him like a whack on the head.

"I knew there was a problem, but I didn't realize it was this bad," Farrell, 25, marveled after a recent presentation at the University of South Florida, from which he is to graduate in August. "I didn't realize there was no solution in sight. My taxes are going to be huge."

The problem is the skyrocketing cost of government health-care and retirement benefits. By most estimates, they will break the national bank as the baby boom generation retires. If projections hold, Farrell and his contemporaries could face a near-doubling of their income taxes over the next 35 years just to care for the burgeoning ranks of older Americans.

Fed up with Washington's paralysis on the issue, the government's chief auditor, David M. Walker, along with analysts from three ideologically diverse think tanks, is venturing beyond the Beltway to explain the issue to voters. Their goal: to generate enough grass-roots anger to force the 2008 presidential candidates to discuss the problem.

Their unusual road show is called the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour, and it is playing to college campuses, Rotary Clubs and newspaper editorial boards from Seattle to West Palm Beach, Fla. The tour has made multiple stops in early primary and campaign battleground states including Iowa, New Hampshire, California and Florida, with more to come.

So far, no candidate in either party has offered a plan to alter the budget-busting trajectory of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security spending. Leading Democrats have shied from promises to balance the budget even in the short term, a comparatively easy task. And leading Republicans are vowing never to raise taxes, a pledge that, if honored, would make closing the budget gap difficult or impossible.

But the Wake-Up troupe is undeterred. Its members say that the primaries are all about party politics and easy answers, and that the serious debate will start next year when the field dwindles to two.

"It's critically important that this becomes one of the major issues in the general election campaign," said Walker, the nation's comptroller general.

The tour is organized by the Concord Coalition, a Virginia nonprofit group formed in 1992 to promote responsible budgeting. The group is collaborating with the liberal Brookings Institution and the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Walker is the tour's rock star, profiled on "60 Minutes" and interviewed by faux-pundit Stephen Colbert. A former Arthur Andersen accountant, Walker heads the Government Accountability Office, a legislative agency that aims to improve government performance through audits and investigations.

With six years to go on a 15-year term, Walker has the stature and independence to say what he wants. For the past five years, since Congress ignored his advice and created a hugely expensive prescription-drug program for Medicare beneficiaries, Walker has put the looming fiscal crisis at the top of his agenda.

"People are on the beach having a beach party while you can see a tsunami of spending on the horizon. And you've got people saying, 'party on,' " Walker said in an interview. "We're headed for very, very rough seas, like we've never seen before in this country."


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