The Congressional Budget Office sounded an alarm Monday, detailing the worrisome rising deficits and debt it anticipates over the next 10 years.
Hours later, the Democratic presidential candidates appeared in Des Moines, Iowa, for a town hall. Approximately 19,000 words were spoken on that stage. Not one was “deficit” or “federal debt.” The topic similarly was barely mentioned at this month’s Republican debate in North Charleston, or in President Obama’s State of the Union address.
With ISIS rising and federal deficits falling, it’s understandable. It’s also short-sighted and irresponsible. The new CBO numbers make clear: The era of shrinking deficits is over. Presidential candidates should explain what they’ll do about it. As importantly, congressional candidates should too.
The CBO, which provides nonpartisan analysis for Congress, projects that this year’s deficit will be the smallest relative to the size of the economy since 2007. It will stay close to flat for the next couple of years, then climb. The annual deficit will rise to more than $1.3 trillion in 2026, and the deficit as a percent of economic output will nearly double from 2.5 percent to 4.9 percent. The CBO says the U.S. is set to spend $10.7 trillion more than it takes in over the next decade. That will grow the public’s credit card tab by about 70 percent.
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The mounting debt is driven largely by spending on Social Security and Medicare as Baby Boomers retire and by the growing amount dedicated to interest on the debt. The current approach leads to endless and massive borrowing and is unsustainable in the long run.
“It’s like a slowly rising tide. You don’t notice until it’s up to your second story windows,” Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, told the Observer editorial board Tuesday. Eventually, the country will have to raise taxes, cut spending on things like defense or Medicare, or both. The sooner Congress starts chipping away at the challenge, the less draconian the solution can be.
“The failure now is, we are just looking the other way and letting the autopilot take over, and it’s on a dangerous course,” Bixby said.
By “we,” Bixby means both candidates for federal office and the public that is OK being on autopilot. Without public pressure, Congress and the new president can happily avoid tough choices, pushing a growing pain down the road.
The Republican presidential candidates promise tax cuts that will swell the debt. Democrats promise new programs that, even if paid for, won’t help with the debt. A real fix will require structural changes, not just a promise to cut pork, waste, fraud and abuse.
Telling people you’re going to raise their taxes is a political loser. Just ask Walter Mondale. But it’d be nice if candidates at least acknowledged the problem and didn’t tout plans that would make it worse.