Our national debt is a pressing problem, but it’s being ignored

Sometimes the easiest thing is to do nothing. And sometimes, that’s incredibly damaging.

Doing nothing about our national debt has been the default for decades now. The consequences are piling up, and with each passing year fixing the problem becomes harder.

We knew where this was going to lead but we didn’t stop. I use that pronoun intentionally – “we” all own a piece of (literally). Not just Democrats. Not just Republicans. Not just politicians, or bureaucrats, or…

This is a “we, the people” problem.

We haven’t demanded Congress get serious. We haven’t embraced modest adjustments to taxes and spending, by default choosing more radical adjustments later. We’ve believed the convenient lies that “deficits don’t matter,” that “growth will save us,” or that “it’s mostly money we owe ourselves anyway, so it’s not real.”

We’ve made our peace with what is, in essence, a “medium-tax, high-spend” model. Our year-to-year deficit has gone from something consistent, with occasional spikes, to something consistently staggering.

The national debt is piling up at an alarming rate, but we’ve become inured to terms like “debt” and “deficit.” People’s eyes glaze over, but this is not “the same old problem.” It has gotten far worse, with yearly trillion-dollar deficits in a few years.

Doing nothing may be easiest, but not making tough choices is itself a choice. This default choice makes our future choices harder.

Bipartisan failure
This isn’t particularly partisan, because both parties have pretty well failed to get real. George W. Bush proposed Social Security reform, but it was a non-starter among Republicans in Congress almost as much as Democrats. Deficits grew during those war years, then exploded as President Obama responded to the economic crisis. Congressional Republicans pushed the sequester to lower spending, but the long-term outlook didn’t change much.

The closest we’ve come to fiscal responsibility in recent years was during the high growth, no-major-wars ‘90s. Congressional Republicans trimmed spending and a Democratic president was willing to accept it.

The near-total Congressional abdication on this topic is reminiscent of the decades-long failure to pass real immigration reform. No one “side” has the votes to pass their preferred version. People don’t want to stick their necks out or explain to constituents the need for change. Some are worried about primary election consequences, others about general election consequences. The net result: Nothing changes

So, the situation sounds pretty hopeless, and maybe it is. Maybe the crisis must loom so immediately that Congress and a president are forced to do something.

What would it take to make progress and move toward a fiscally rational policy?

  1. Political leadership focused on long-term good, not short-term political pain. It’s hard not to think that term limits would have a positive effect on this problem. If people in Congress weren’t focused on staying there for a dozen terms, they might be more willing to do what needs to be done.
  2. A sustained public focus on the debt problem. Looking at Congressional races around the country, the debt issue is hardly being discussed. The debate is stale and many have tuned it out. We need public outreach from people who can turn around and do something about the debt: Members of Congress and candidates.
  3. A clear plan. Simpson-Bowles remains the gold standard of deficit plans and will likely provide the structure for whatever our future solution may be.

Primary ballots are in your mailbox now. As you evaluate Congressional candidates, look for those who are willing to bring up this important topic that too many others would rather avoid.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.