Christopher Hildebrand contributed to this post.
This past weekend, 64 Senators – 32 Republicans and 32 Democrats – sent President Obama a letter, urging him to lead the charge towards action on the debt. While we commend this bipartisan group of Senators for their cooperation and agreement on the magnitude of our fiscal problem, we also hope that the letter will spur Congress to expand the narrow scope of the current debt debate.
To its credit, the letter shows bipartisan agreement in the Senate that the debt poses a significant challenge, and that any solution must address the major entitlement programs. With this important first step, the “Gang of 64” has achieved two goals. First, these Senators are doing their part to raise public awareness of the problem, echoing the calls of many organizations outside of Congress, such as the president’s own Fiscal Commission, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Concord Coalition, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and others. Second, the Senators who signed the letter have called on President Obama to become involved in the deliberations. Whether he does so publicly or in private sessions, to strike a deal, the president must be involved. Even if he decides not to lead by publicly offering his own preferred solution, the president should be repeatedly emphasizing to the American people the gravity, size, and scope of the problem. Only he has the ability to convince Americans that they must sacrifice in order for our nation to avoid, as Erskine Bowles put it, “the most predictable crisis in history,” which would inevitably require far greater pain.
Meanwhile, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) has been educating his caucus in a series of closed-door meetings on the Hill, instructing them that eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse” will come nowhere near to solving the problem. Chairman Ryan is right; so too are the 64 Senators who acknowledge that the solution must address health care cost growth and should also guarantee the future sustainability of Social Security.
The bitter and recurring struggle over spending in the present fiscal year, however, centers on immediate cuts to non-security discretionary spending – a small and shrinking slice of the overall federal budget. Eliminating this entire portion of the budget would not adequately address our fiscal woes – debt would still rise to nearly 80% of the economy within a decade, and continue to climb rapidly thereafter.
David Cote, CEO of Honeywell International and a member of the president’s Fiscal Commission, labeled this narrow focus akin to “chasing ants and ignoring elephants.” Congress, in other words, needs to entertain a much broader range of reforms and take immediate action.
Although the issue of our debt has certainly entered the discourse in Washington over the past year, many public officials and analysts continue to sweep the real drivers of our debt under the rug. If the “Gang of 64” is really looking for a strong signal, instead of signing a letter, they should negotiate and eventually sign a bipartisan bill that addresses all aspects of the budget. President Obama does need to lead, but Congress – not the president – must write and pass a bill.