Houghton and Davis: 16 Trillion Reasons to Tackle the Debt

Posted October 24, 2012 at 5:33pm

Recently, our country passed an ignominious mark — more than $16 trillion in federal debt. It is a number so large that it is hard for most Americans to comprehend. 

To put it into a little perspective, the $16 trillion in federal debt translates to more than $140,000 that would be owed by each and every taxpayer in the United States. The median household income is a bit more than $50,000, meaning every household in America would need to dedicate almost three years of income just to cover the unpaid debt run up by politicians in Washington.

This $16 trillion in debt would be problematic enough on its own, even if the money had been spent wisely and resulted in a booming economy with full employment and rising household incomes. Unfortunately, this mountain of debt is compounded by the fact that the results of all of this runaway spending have been ineffective. Real unemployment sits at 15 percent, household incomes are in decline and our economy continues to struggle. It’s like Washington paid for a Porsche but got a Yugo.

We have 16 trillion reasons why now is the time to tackle the debt. On that point, few would disagree. The problems are obvious to everyone, and everyone in Washington — Democrat or Republican — claims to want to do something about them. 

There are those — on both sides of the aisle — who have been willing to step up and offer plans to address this fiscal crisis. Sadly, every time someone has shown the political courage to articulate a plan, special interests and the politicians looking for a cheap score have gone after them.

In 2010, the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan was unveiled. This framework for meaningful deficit reduction was crafted by a commission headed by a Republican, former Sen. Alan Simpson (Wyo.), and a Democrat, Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. While there is a lot of political nostalgia from both parties for the Simpson-Bowles plan, the truth is that it was dead on arrival. 

Conservatives at the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Tax Reform despised the tax provisions. Liberals in ivory towers such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gagged on its cuts in Social Security, Medicare and other safety-net programs. 

Simpson-Bowles wasn’t the only option that was derided. 

Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) deficit reduction plan released in the spring of 2011 has met with even more intense opposition and demonization. 

President Barack Obama, who so far has no plan of his own and rejected the Simpson-Bowles plan, attacked the Ryan plan as “social Darwinism.” 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the Ryan plan “a path to poverty for America’s seniors and children and a road to riches for big oil,” and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) called it a “death trap.”

Neither Pelosi nor Wasserman Schultz has offered a deficit reduction plan.

If we are going to get serious about avoiding this impending fiscal crisis, then we need more than just campaign rhetoric. We need political courage from Members on both sides of the aisle.

We need to encourage more people to put forward plans that offer solutions to the complex and long-term financial challenges we face. We should encourage a meaningful debate over the policy. 

Campaign promises are easy; attacks on any plan to tackle the debt are even easier. Governing is tough. Coming together and making the tough calls necessary to implement any plan to avoid the impending fiscal disaster will be even harder.

If we are going to move forward, we need to agree on some foundational issues. First, we need buy-in from Democrats and Republicans — no meaningful debt reduction plan will be passed if it is seen as partisan.

Second, everything must be on the table. No one’s sacred cows can be ruled off limits before we even begin the discussion. The only way we can get bipartisan buy-in is if both sides agree that everything is on the table.

Third, we have to recognize that neither spending cuts nor tax increases alone will be able to tackle the mountain of debt we are staring at, which is why entitlement reform has to be a part of any comprehensive debt solution. 

Fourth, and finally, we have to recognize that none of this occurs in a vacuum. Every decision about how best to reduce the deficit and the debt must be made with an eye toward our struggling economy. At the end of the day, we need to ensure that debt reduction doesn’t occur at the expense of American jobs.

The challenges are significant. We didn’t get into this debt crisis overnight, and we will not get out of it overnight. But by showing some real political courage and by working together, we can forge a comprehensive solution that will help us avert the fiscal cliff we face ahead of us.

Amo Houghton is a former nine-term Republican House Member from New York. Tom Davis is a former seven-term Republican House Member from Virginia.