The Ripon Forum

Volume 43, No. 3

Summer 2009 Issue

Congress Must Take the Giant Leap for Future Generations

By on December 3, 2015


As the nation commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this summer, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin called for the kind of investments it will take to bring America’s space program back to the moon and beyond, I couldn’t help but think about how far behind American students are in the sciences compared to their international counterparts.

Tests show that one-third of U.S. students lack the competency to perform the most basic mathematical computations. The U.S. was ranked 21st out of 24 countries in math and science proficiency in 2006. Now more than ever we need to ask ourselves: where will we find the money to close this gap?

The national debt has topped $11 trillion, doubling since 2000, for the first time in our nation’s history and will double again over the next 10 years if left unchecked. This year’s federal deficit is exploding at a staggering $1.8 trillion leaving red ink as far as the eye can see. Instead of confronting these issues and ensuring that the country’s best days truly are ahead, the 111th Congress seems content to kick the can down the road and saddle our children and grandchildren with mountains of debt and a lower standard of living.

This year’s federal deficit is exploding at a staggering $1.8 trillion leaving red ink as far as the eye can see.

Congress, at the president’s urging, passed the $787 billion economic stimulus bill in February, which has done nothing to stop unemployment from reaching a 26-year high of 9.5 percent in June and some believe could reach 11 percent or higher. Now the president wants health care reform with a measure — moving through the House fast enough to give lawmakers whiplash — that has a current price tag over $1 trillion and does nothing to address the skyrocketing cost of Medicare and other entitlement programs.

Medicare and Social Security add up to a massive $56 trillion in promises Uncle Sam has made that are coming due as the Baby Boom generation begins to retire. This year’s Medicare and Social Security trustees report found both programs are hurtling toward bankruptcy even faster than previous annual reports have predicted. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently released projections that publicly held government debt will reach 82 percent of GDP – double what it is now – by 2019. Standard and Poor’s Investment Service has reported that the U.S. could lose its coveted triple-A bond rating by 2012. Look at California — its credit rating has been lowered twice and the state is now paying bills with IOUs. Look at countries like Ireland or even Great Britain, which received a downgrade warning from Standard & Poor’s. Why do we believe that our federal government is insulated from the same fate?

Economists of all stripes have expressed concerns about policymakers getting the country’s fiscal house in order. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the government’s deficit in the single biggest hurdle to economic recovery, and that the stage is set for a potential upsurge in inflation if lawmakers continue to do nothing. It’s astonishing that we are willing to allow countries such as China and Saudi Arabia to buy up America, while Congress continues to swipe the seemingly limitless taxpayer credit card.

Simply put, our nation is going broke. If lawmakers were serious about the debt and the deficit, issues that Americans are increasingly worried about, Congress would halt the budget gimmicks, the slick talking points, and muster the political will to have an honest conversation with the American people about where we are, where we’re headed, and what changes need to be made to get us back on track.

To ensure that this overdue conversation takes place, Jim Cooper, a Blue Dog Democrat representing Tennessee, and I have introduced legislation to create a national bipartisan commission that will look at the totality of our nation’s financial future – entitlement spending, other federal spending and tax policy – and offer a recommended plan of action to Congress which requires an up or down vote. A key part of the process would be town hall style meetings in each of the 12 Federal Reserve districts to allow and encourage the American people to weigh in. Similar to the base closing process, the Cooper-Wolf Securing Americas Future Economy (SAFE) Commission has teeth, and Congress would be forced to act.

Instead of confronting these issues and ensuring that the country’s best days truly are ahead, the 111th Congress seems content to kick the can down the road and saddle our children and grandchildren with mountains of debt and a lower standard of living.

America is facing extraordinary economic circumstances, and I believe there are moral implications to allowing our children and grandchildren to be swept away by what former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker has called “a financial tsunami strong enough to swamp our ship of state.” Every day that lawmakers wait for these issues to be addressed through “regular order” is another day that entitlement spending will tighten its grip on the vital discretionary dollars and squeeze out would be opportunity for future generations.

The bipartisan commission concept would restore Americans’ confidence in Congress’s ability to come together when the going gets tough, and would ensure that the resources are available to give our children the first class education they need to compete in the global marketplace, to fund clinical trials that will lead to breakthroughs in medical research, and keep America’s transportation and infrastructure safe.

Congress needs to trust the wisdom of the American people. Some 56 percent, according to a Peter Hart/Public Opinion Strategies poll, believe the bipartisan commission concept is the best way to deal with America’s financial future. The idea is supported by over 70 House members, and Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad and ranking member Judd Gregg have endorsed a similar measure. I offered the SAFE Commission as an amendment to the stimulus legislation when it was marked up in the Appropriations Committee where I serve, and again on the annual Financial Services spending bill that passed the House earlier this month. In both instances, it was denied a vote on the House floor.

The SAFE solution has been endorsed by academics at the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Concord Coalition, the Business Roundtable, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the National Federation of Independent Business, and both the Virginia and Tennessee chambers of commerce. Syndicated columnists such as David Brooks, David Broder, Robert Samuelson, Michael Gerson, and Fred Hiatt have all written favorably about the proposal.

It’s time for Congress to come together – Democrats and Republicans – and make a difference for the generations of young Americans who are counting on us for a secure future. RF

Frank Wolf represents the 10th District of Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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