The Ripon Forum

Volume 46, No. 2

Spring 2012 Issue

Defusing the DEBT BOMB

By on August 13, 2014 with 0 Comments


Official PortraitI have spent much of the past two years in meetings with members from both parties trying to solve the debt problem. My colleagues are well intended, and I love them dearly as individuals, but there is no real leadership in either party. Both sides do the same calculation: “If I tell the voters the truth, they won’t like me and they won’t vote for me.” They then convince themselves that they can’t do the right thing now because they won’t have the power to stay in office.

If Members of Congress knew their current term would be their last, I have no doubt we could defuse the debt bomb within a matter of days. The fact that we haven’t passed such a bill has much more to do with careerism – the philosophy of governing to win the next election above all else – than ideology. Bridging the gap between conservatives and liberals is easy compared to bridging the gap between courage and cowardice.

Both parties today are putting their short-term political interests ahead of the country. Both present their positions as tough and principled to their respective partisans, but what we often see is posturing and false purity.

 If Members of Congress knew their current term would be their last, I have no doubt we could defuse the debt bomb within a matter of days.

For example, politicians in both parties try to score points by promoting their refusal to compromise with the other side. In most cases, this posturing has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with careerism—pandering to one side’s respective political base in order to gain popularity and win reelection.

Democrats claim their line in the sand is protecting entitlement benefits for the poor and seniors. Convinced of the virtue of their goal, partisan Democrats rationalize their decision to dismiss, demagogue, and demonize anyone who proposes entitlement reform. This position, however, is entirely about protecting Democrats, not the poor or seniors. If entitlement programs are not reformed, they will collapse and bring our economy down with them.

Republicans, meanwhile, say their line in the sand is “no tax increases.” I’m glad so many Republicans are talking tough about the problem being overspending, not under-taxation. I’ve been making that case since 1995. If these same Republicans, who continue to vote for more spending, had been as resolute since 1995, the problem would be much easier to solve. Every dollar of deficit spending Republicans backed—along with Democrats—was a deferred tax increase. Our present challenges prove that deficits do matter.

Republicans know it is possible to increase revenue without raising tax rates on anyone. In fact, you can cut tax rates, cut spending, and see an increase in tax revenue. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) nailed this point when he said, “We don’t need new taxes. We need new taxpayers.” Ultimately, smart tax policy stimulates real growth, which, in turn, creates jobs and revenue.

In the real world, putting one dollar on the table in order to get ten dollars back, or even three or four dollars back, would be a great deal. In Washington, however, this kind of agreement is seen as heresy to careerists on both sides. In a 10 to 1 deal ($10 in cuts for every $1 in tax revenue), Democrats would see only “cuts” while Republicans would see only “tax increases,” even though such a deal would prevent the very cuts and tax increases they each say they want to avoid.

If Admiral Mike Mullen is correct that our debt is our greatest national security threat, doing nothing is a recipe for mutually assured destruction. The reality is, doing nothing to solve the problem is both a tax increase and a benefit cut for seniors and the poor. Doing nothing violates the core principles of both parties, while solving the problem is consistent with those values. Doing nothing is the real betrayal and the heresy.

 Career politicians in Washington can draw lines in the sand all day, but those lines have already been washed away by a rising tide of debt.

Career politicians in Washington can draw lines in the sand all day, but those lines have already been washed away by a rising tide of debt. There are no lines left to hold. We are under siege and surrounded by an enemy of our own making. We’ll either fix the problem together, or suffer enormously together. As much as I would enjoy serving in a conservative supermajority, it will never happen before the debt bomb explodes. A liberal supermajority is equally impossible. And if we refuse to make the effort and talk to one another, what is the alternative? Will the Chinese and other foreign governments give us a better deal than another party within our own country?

The good news is in spite of all of the political theater and posturing Americans see in our nation’s capital, both sides are largely in agreement about the magnitude of the fiscal challenges we face and are not as far apart as it seems in terms of a solution. With a little leadership and courage, we can get there sooner than you think.   RF


Tom A. Coburn, M.D. was elected to the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma on November 2, 2004. This op-ed is excerpted and adapted from his new book, The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting America.

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