David Walker, the prophet of deficit doom, and his sermon to save America

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; C01

IN ATLANTA "I have a lot of nicknames," David M. Walker says.

"Paul Revere! Paul Revere. That's what Paul Volcker calls me," Walker declares, dropping the name of the inflation-slaying 1980s Fed chief.

"Fiscal Ranger," he goes on. "That's what CNBC calls me."

"And when I was on Colbert," Walker says, "he called me, 'Walker, Taxes Ranger.' "

Yuk-yukking commences in the pack milling around Walker in the hallway of Georgia Public Broadcasting's studios, where they've just finished taping an appearance on a public affairs program. This - to belabor the theme - is Walker's posse, a merry bunch of deficit hawks spreading their message of impending empire-cratering, quality-of-life-destroying, retirement-obliterating, future-generation-imperiling, America-as-we-know-it-erasing doom.

Charts they've got, and sheaves of statistical projections capable of paralyzing the most nimble mind. Walker, numbers man that he is, can tell you without hesitation that he's spoken to audiences in 47 states about the evils of America's yawning (pun intended) federal budget deficit and garishly ascendant national debt. North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska have so far missed out (or been spared, depending on your perspective), but Walker's working on getting to each of them, hopeful of accumulating a full set of these united states.

A few years back, Walker and his friends skittered around the nation on something they called a Fiscal Wake-Up Tour; now they're back with the Fiscal Solutions Tour, sort of a number-nerd's version of a rock-and-roll reunion road show - without the groupies, sex or drugs, that is.

The cast rotates, but on this day in Atlanta, most of the core group is on hand. There's Joe Antos, the impish American Enterprise Institute scholar who tells one of their audiences that "not everybody's going to love numbers like we do." By his side is Robert Bixby, the sallow-cheeked executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nocturnal being who seems to subsist primarily on cigars, bananas and oceanic quantities of the soft drink Tab. And then there's Alice Rivlin, the 80-year-old Brookings Institution fixture who recently served on President Obama's debt commission and has held so many government posts that she sometimes asks to have the word "former" removed from a few of them when she's being introduced.

"It annoys me," Rivlin grumbles. "It sounds like I'm unemployed."

But that word - "former"- is part of what gives this crew its bona fides. Rivlin, after all, is - among many other things - the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, the former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve. Walker is the former comptroller general of the United States, a 15-year appointment at once arcane and ultra-exclusive - only eight humans can say they've served in the post, and Walker was the seventh. (Pop quiz: Can you name the current comptroller general? Didn't think so.)

The Former-Fill-in-the-Blank, indeed, might be Washington's biggest manufactured product. At a time when there's much understandable distress about America not making anything anymore, Washington churns out pallet-loads of Formers. Let no one say the capital isn't producing. When it comes to building Formers, Washington operates with assembly-line efficiency. And not just on four-year cycles, but frequently on two-year timetables, with the routine midterm exodus of Capitol Hill used-to-bes, as well as the usual gusher at the White House, where gross domestic former-official production has been bolstered lately by first lady Michelle Obama's habit of churning through social secretaries.

Government types skip away from their Cabinet posts or their directorships or their undersecretaryships of this or that with a kind of cred that no university degree can impart. Their routes are varied - there's the buckets-of-cash path, think Tom Daschle with his multimillion-dollar consulting gigs and chauffeur-driven car. But there's also the evangelizing route: the Former-With-a-Message.

Walker wants to be that kind of Former. In his words, "the dark-suited preacher in rimless glasses spouting facts, fire and brimstone." Walker's Former-ship began with running billionaire Pete Peterson's foundation and is now occupied with heading a more broadly focused, Peterson-supported organization called the Comeback America Initiative. In both roles, Walker's message centers on the national debt, now more than $14 trillion, and spills into outrage over the federal budget deficit, pegged at $1.5 trillion.

But Walker's real fire comes with the projections about the cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Those programs - "based on historical taxation projections," he adds with a certain reverence for the fine print - along with the huge cost of paying interest on the national debt, could consume the entire federal budget as soon as 2025, he says. That would leave no money for, well, anything else.

"America's future is threatened," Walker likes to say.

And it's our own fault, he says - Americans spend too much and save too little, and our politicians engage in "intentional obfuscation," not to mention promising more than they can responsibly deliver. But Walker's not through there.

The Social Security Trust Fund? "A scam," he says.

Federal tax policy? Full of "tricks."

Politicians? "They play all kinds of con games."

Things are so bad, Walker says, that he compares the United States to the Roman Empire before its shattering decline, or - for a more current example - he says we're "less than three years" from a financial crisis similar to the one happening in Greece. Once he's rolling, he'll slam Obama for having a "Wimpy" tax policy, a nod to the character in the "Popeye" cartoons who would say, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

Americans need to understand that the fiscal crisis is comparable, he says, to a "burning platform. . . . If you stand still, you will be consumed."

Walker is in full sermon mode when he steps out of the Georgia Public Broadcasting studios, holding forth on the explosive growth of Medicare costs. Two law-enforcement vehicles await, ready to race him and his fellow apostles of the apocalypse at VIP speed through Atlanta's infamous traffic snarls to reach their next appearance.

Bixby considers the scene for a moment and - never one to miss an opportunity to reinforce his broken-record point - he deadpans: "You know it's reached a crisis when there's a police escort for a deficit chart talk."

Phil Smith, the Atlanta-based national political director of the Concord Coalition, which has been footing the bill for the solutions tour, boosts Rivlin onto the running board of the van - it's too far off the ground for the 5-foot-tall Rivlin.

"I used to be taller," she confides.

"Next time, I'll get one with a stool," Smith promises.

Bixby takes the front seat. "A cold Tab and a police escort," he says dreamily. "What could be better?"

The preacher in practice

Washington is a town of lapel pins. When you're running for something, there's the inevitable American-flag lapel pin. Members of Congress get official members-of-Congress pins. The lapel adornments confer status and transmit messages - I'm a patriot, I'm someone important, I'm presidential. (Obama generated headlines and debate when he was running for office - first by daring not to wear a flag on his lapel, saying he thought it had become a substitute for true patriotism, then by pinning one on again.)

Schooled in the ways of Washington, Walker employs the lapel as billboard approach. His pin says: "CPA."

At their best, Certified Public Accountants are more than compilers of numbers - they're translators, interpreting the fun-house-mirror contortions of American tax policy and charting a path for clients. And that's what Walker wants to be - a charter of paths. But he needed to leave office to do it. He needed to become a Former.

Now, he says, he's free to throw out proposed solutions to the nation's fiscal woes in a way that he couldn't as comptroller general, a job mostly attuned to auditing the government's books as head of the Government Accountability Office. (Walker, who is fixated with accountability, succeeded in changing the name while he was comptroller general from Government Accounting Office.) Out of office, he says he has more latitude to lean on Congress to take his fiscal advice.

So it was, in March 2008, that Walker gave up one of the sweetest deals in Washington. Ten years into his 15-year term, he quit his job as comptroller general. If he'd stayed for the full term, Walker would have been eligible for a lifetime pension about equal to his $170,000-plus salary. By quitting early, he gave up the pension, a decision he calculates could end up saving American taxpayers millions of dollars.

"I gave at the office," Walker, now 59, says over lunch one afternoon at a Legal Sea Foods in downtown Washington. He repeats the line at the Atlanta airport the next morning after arriving for the start of a two-day Fiscal Solutions Tour swing. Then again, that afternoon, in the van. He knows how to stay on message.

Walker's voice hints at his Southern roots - he was born in Alabama, then moved with his family to Florida, following the career trajectory of his father, a regional telephone executive. He has a round, prominent forehead and close-set eyes. Bald on top, he trims the stubborn holdouts of his blond hair tight behind the ears.

Walker tells people he's frequently mistaken for his friend, the similarly follicly challenged Christopher Shays, a former Connecticut congressman. To make matters even more confusing, Walker bought the Republican's house in Bridgeport, Conn.

Shays, Walker recalls, attended a party at the house last year for No Labels - a non-partisan political group Walker's been instrumental in forming. For fun, Walker recalls, Shays went around joking to guests - the ones who might be mistaking him for Walker - that they could take whatever they wanted.

The house, like almost everything in Walker's life, serves as a talking point for his dawn-to-dusk tutorials. Walker styles himself as a champion of fiscal discipline, nudging the nation to minimize debt.

So, "practicing what I preach," he says, he has no mortgage on the home in Mount Vernon, where he lived while he was comptroller general. He's selling the house, he says, and will use the proceeds to pay off the mortgage he took out to buy Shays's house in Bridgeport, the headquarters of his Comeback America Initiative, named after his book: "Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility." Once again, he'll be mortgage-free. (Walker, who splits time between Bridgeport and Washington, also owns a mortgage-free townhouse in Alexandria.)

Until recently, Walker completed his tax forms by hand, without the aid of a computer program, an exercise bordering on self-flagellation, even for a CPA such as himself. He calls tax preparation day "the worst time of the year" at his house; his wife, Mary, is in charge of collecting receipts, and "the process never works - how shall I put it? - smoothly," Walker wrote in "Comeback America." But doing so gave him another talking point. As comptroller general, Walker urged his staff to prepare their own taxes.

Walker eventually broke down and hired an accountant when his return became complicated by the fact that he worked in multiple states in a single year. This year, he'll also seek help because of complications presented by the sweeteners he got to make up for his loss of a government pension. (Walker makes around $300,000 running Comeback - a tasty jump from his government paycheck, but that's far less than the mega-bump many Formers enjoy. He also covers half his salary by funneling his speaking fees and royalties to the organization.)

Like Walker, Peterson is a Former. Peterson - who became one of America's wealthiest men in 2007 after the initial public offering of his investment firm, the Blackstone Group - served as commerce secretary for a year during the Nixon administration.

Peterson has pledged $1 billion of his money to untangling fiscal-sustainability issues, such as the deficit, entitlement programs and tax policy.

"I would be the first to admit there is far from a consensus on what to do about it," he says on the phone one afternoon. Peterson's money fuels not only his foundation, which Walker led for nearly three years, but also Walker's Comeback America Initiative, which launched last month.

The former commerce secretary also is a primary bankroller of the Concord Coalition, the stalwart budget-hawk group headed by Walker's indefatigable pal, Bixby. All told, the Peterson foundation is supporting at least 20 active programs, a spokeswoman says.

Peterson's patronage of a nationwide conversation about the deficit and the debt seems to be only in its infancy - and it remains to be seen whether it will translate into government action. There have been a bevy of commissions musing about the debt and the deficit, but in Washington, just because a commission (or billionaire, for that matter) recommends something doesn't mean it'll happen.

At this point, Peterson has spent $50 million on programs and on operating his foundation, according to the spokeswoman. That leaves $950 million to spend on all sorts of obsessions, from deficits and debts to health-care costs, the Pentagon's budget and on and on. One wonders how long it would take to spend all that money. "I haven't any idea," Peterson says, "how long it's going to take."

Always on message

Walker almost never checks a bag - waiting for the baggage carousel isn't an economical use of time. Streamlining travel headaches is why Walker and his wife favor cruises for vacations - they've been on 21, he says. "You only have to unpack your bag once," he points out.

In Atlanta's airport, Walker passes a Georgia lottery booth. "That's some people's retirement plans," he zings. Always on message.

Bixby joins him at their first Atlanta stop - a Kiwanis luncheon - in a suit but with a pair of rumpled jeans cradled in his arms, along with a tangled nest of papers and files - "I always travel in jeans," he says.

Walker tells the audience that America is "driving toward a cliff," and Rivlin touts the so-called Domenici-Rivlin commission solution - named for her and former New Mexico Republican senator Pete Domenici - which calls for spending cuts and imposing a national sales tax to reduce the deficit. "I think it's nifty," Rivlin says.

After the speeches, Kiwanis members cluster around the stage to meet Walker and Rivlin. "She's hot," Bixby says.

Talking about fixing problems is more complicated and nuanced than pointing out that there is a problem. The federal debt is one giant number that an audience can easily grasp; but a talk about finding a way out of deficits and lowering the debt can leave audiences with an impression of something that looks more like a bowl of spaghetti than a straight line.

Walker wants many things, but in the simplest terms, he wants this: less spending and more equitably collected taxes. "Those who make more and those who have more should pay more," he says on the phone one afternoon. Now, there's more to it than that - spending cuts, for instance, play three times as large a role in his ideal world as tax increases, he says. And nothing can be done in isolation.

He wants the poor to get more Social Security and the rich to get less. Eventually, he'd like some kind of a consumption tax, such as a sales tax or a value-added tax, but not before federal budget controls have been put in place, entitlement programs have been tweaked and the Pentagon's spending has been brought under control. He runs through some of the list with Rivlin in the van and rapid-fires plans for his new organization: "It sounds like you're really into it," she says.

Later, in the makeup room at Georgia Public Broadcasting, Walker assures the stylist that "some of us don't have hair to worry about." Antos rises from the chair and considers his own glorious baldness. "I'm a lot less shiny than I was a few minutes ago," he announces.

The conversation, as always, is about deficits and debt, spending and cutting. Rivlin grouses about a blog post written by an academic she calls "a deficit denier." The source of her irritation turns out to be James K. Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas who also happens to be the son of the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

In a phone interview, James Galbraith calls the various Peterson-funded organizations that are involved in the solutions roadshows "fronts" and accuses the billionaire of an "ulterior motive" to cut entitlement programs. The arguments being made by Walker, Rivlin and other "deficit worriers" are "tired and shabby," Galbraith wrote in a piece titled "Deficit Hawks Down."

Walker and Rivlin discuss Galbraith's posting while law-enforcement cruisers block intersections for them on the way to their final appearance at the new health science building at Kennesaw State University. Inside the building's VIP lounge, a university vice president, Wes Wicker, boasts about the building's "physical assessment rooms that look just like emergency rooms."

Walker chimes in. "Physical or fiscal?"

Wicker looks confused.

"Fiscal assessment rooms," Walker says. "They need to look like an emergency room, too."

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