New Task for a Budget Straight-Talker
It was sheer coincidence that Wednesday, David M. Walker's last day as comptroller general of the United States, was the same day that the House and Senate began to debate their budget resolutions for next year.
As the head of the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, Walker has been perhaps the most outspoken official in Washington warning of the fiscal train wreck that awaits this country unless it mends its ways.
The budget resolutions approved last week both envisage an increase in the deficit next year. The Senate predicts $366 billion, the House $340 billion. Meanwhile, over the next five years, independent estimates are that the national debt, already $9 trillion, will grow by $2 trillion. Almost half the government debt owed to banks or individuals is held by foreign creditors, notably China, Japan and the OPEC nations, up from 13 percent five years ago.
Both resolutions forecast a balanced budget in 2012, but they use the same dubiously optimistic assumptions President Bush employed to make the same claim for his tax-and-spending proposal. Once again, the hard choices are being pushed off to some hazy future.
For much of his nine years as comptroller general, and with increasing urgency in recent times, Walker has been warning policymakers in Washington and audiences around the country that this nation is courting disaster by not paying its bills.
Last week, he cautioned in a speech that "largely due to the aging of the baby boomers and rising health care costs, the United States faces decades of red ink. . . . If the United States continues as it has, policymakers will eventually have to raise taxes or slash government services that U.S. citizens depend on and take for granted. . . . Over time, the U.S. government could be reduced to doing little more than mailing out Social Security checks to retirees and paying interest on the massive national debt."
Even as a nonpartisan employee of Congress, Walker has been blunt enough to say, again and again, that "at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and on both sides of the political aisle, there are too few leaders who face the facts" about this fiscal mess.
When I went to see Walker two days before he left office, he told me he had begun to realize he was pushing the limits on advocacy at the GAO. So he jumped at the opportunity offered him by Peter G. Peterson, the son of Greek immigrants who made a fortune as a Wall Street investment banker. Peterson has created a foundation bearing his name and promised to fund it with $1 billion over a period of years. Walker is now running it.
The foundation's main focus will be to spur action to curb the deficits, but other target areas will include education, especially fiscal literacy and civics; energy conservation; and nonproliferation of nuclear and biological weapons.
With Peterson's backing, Walker said he will be able to do things his old job did not allow -- "advocate specific solutions, build coalitions and put grass-roots pressure on Washington."
Because others already have done "a lot of the basic research and analysis" needed in these areas, Walker said that the Peterson Foundation will emphasize the advocacy role, especially with the business community and young people.
He said that his experience in 35 town meetings has convinced him that "the people are ahead of the politicians" in their readiness to see the government discipline itself. "But they don't know what we need to do."
Walker said that in his judgment, the United States "has no more than five or 10 years" to readjust its policies to stave off fiscal ruin. He said that "unless the next president makes this a priority, this effort of ours won't make a difference." But he said that the public will have to demand a change of course, or politicians will continue to shilly-shally.
The last time the broad public grasped the danger of budget deficits was in 1992, when Ross Perot paid for half-hour television infomercials, complete with dramatic charts and graphs, as part of his presidential campaign. That seeded the ground for Bill Clinton's 1993 effort that succeeded briefly in wiping out those deficits.
Perot later gave Walker an autographed copy of one of those charts, as a tribute to a legatee. Walker says the foundation will try to emulate Perot, using television, the Internet and all other communication tools. No task is more important to our future.