Last week, President Obama vented his frustration at Congressional Republicans for storming out of White House budget talks over raising the debt ceiling. Anyone who thinks the president overreacted should look to the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) latest budget forecast, which warns that the national debt is poised to spiral out of control.
Released on the same day GOP negotiators abandoned their post at the budget talks, CBO’s “Long-Term Budget Outlook” predicted that the debt will reach 100 percent of GDP in less than a decade, then zoom to twice the size of the U.S. economy by 2037. In other words, we are moving inexorably toward the unsustainable level of debt (about 150 percent of GDP) that has plunged Greece into crisis.
CBO’s grim forecast, said the fiscal hawks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, “should erase any thoughts of waiting until after the election – or worse, until markets force our hand – to make the needed changes to our budget.” Such warnings, however, have fallen on deaf ears among Republicans, who refuse to even talk about debt reduction if it includes tax hikes.
GOP intransigence boosts the odds that Congress will fail to raise the debt ceiling by the August 2 deadline set by U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. If that happens, the federal government would have to cut government programs drastically, or else risk defaulting debts to foreign creditors — “the first-ever failure by the United States to meet its commitments,” notes Geithner.
But even if the White House and House Republicans somehow strike a deal over the debt ceiling, the larger challenge of closing America’s enormous fiscal gap will remain. Before the Republicans quit the talks, the goal was to cut the debt by as much as $2 trillion over the next decade. The president’s Fiscal Commission, however, concluded that we need to close the gap by closer to $4 trillion. There’s no politically responsible or feasible way to get to that number by cutting government spending alone; that’s why tax revenues have to be on the table.
So do entitlements. The CBO report makes clear that we need a comprehensive deficit reduction plan that not only stabilizes and reduces the debt over the medium term, but also grapples with long-run spending on healthcare and Social Security. The CBO projects that by 2035, health care spending under both the baseline and alternative scenarios will grow 5.1 to 9.2 percent and 8.5 percent of GDP respectively. Similarly, the CBO expects Social Security to grow to from 4.8 to 6.1 percent of GDP under both scenarios.
President Obama is right: With the deadline for raising the debt limit only a month away, it’s time for an outbreak of fiscal sobriety in Washington. In truth, there is neither time nor political will to forge a comprehensive solution to America’s exploding debts before August 2. But lawmakers could put together a reasonable down payment that would include temperate cuts in domestic and defense spending; more tax revenues from closing backdoor spending through the tax code, such as oil and gas subsidies; and adoption of the “chained CPI” something I wrote about earlier, would lower spending growth on big entitlements like Social security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Either way, the debt ceiling must be raised, and a grand bargain on deficit reduction must be struck. So President Obama is right to reject the invitation from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to come hear Hill Republicans rehearse their undying opposition to raising taxes. We’re in the fiscal red zone now, and the time for posturing is behind us.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore