Taylor Batten

A lonely voice sounds the debt alarm

Poor Bob Bixby.

For 23 years now, and 16 as the Quixote-in-chief, Bixby has traveled the country attempting the impossible.

His quest? To get Americans and their politicians concerned enough about federal deficits and the debt that they do something about it. Though the nation’s debt is rapidly approaching $19 trillion, with a ‘t’, Bixby’s alarm lately has become barely audible, drowned out by ISIS and other concerns.

He is the executive director of the bipartisan Concord Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for balanced budgets and long-term sustainability for entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. For a man who repeatedly bashes his head against a brick wall, he seems remarkably undeterred.

Apathy around the debt “just makes our work more important,” he told me during a visit to Charlotte last week.

Bixby and the Concord Coalition are committed to making a long-term balanced budget a prominent issue in this year’s presidential race. They are corralling candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, trying to pin them down. They send volunteers to candidate events to ask questions about it. They conduct one-on-one interviews with candidates about fiscal issues that air on local TV. And they nudge media outlets to focus on the issue.

After Iowa and New Hampshire, they’ll take their campaign to 10 more states, including North Carolina. They plan to schedule community events where residents try their hand at balancing the budget.

Bixby doesn’t give high grades to any presidential candidate. Even if Democrats raise taxes to cover their new spending, he says, they’ll make no progress on the debt. And Republicans want tax cuts so big they can’t possibly be paid for.

Donald Trump, for example, wants huge tax cuts but won’t touch entitlements and names few specific spending cuts.

“Maybe he can put Harry Potter in charge of the Treasury,” Bixby said.

Of the Republicans, John Kasich and Chris Christie appear most likely to make any real attempt at bringing down the debt, he said.

Mostly, though, the candidates feel free to ignore the issue. Deficits were a hot topic when President Obama took office and the annual shortfall was $1.4 trillion. It’s been shrinking ever since, and it’s now smaller than the average of the past 50 years.

If Bixby couldn’t persuade Congress to tackle the debt when the public was alarmed about it, imagine his challenge now. Case in point: Amid the 6,100 words in Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, he said the word “deficit” once (citing its shrinkage) and “debt” not at all. His only mention of Social Security and Medicare was to urge strengthening them, not weakening them, but what does that look like?

Bixby’s argument hasn’t changed much over the past 20 years. Whatever the current state of the budget, he’s convinced a time bomb will eventually detonate without structural changes. Long-term Congressional Budget Office projections show annual deficits, interest on the debt and Social Security and Medicare payments all growing, while spending on everything else shrinks.

So Bixby continues to push his boulder up the hill, no matter how many times it rolls back down.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter @tbatten1.