Will Washington Heed the Wake-Up Call?

Doug Wilson

5/6/2008 11:25:10 AM - Doug Wilson

On January 1 of this year, the first Baby Boomers became eligible for early retirement Social Security benefits—the first drop in an inevitable demographic flood which, over the next 20 years, will bring 78 million Americans into benefit eligibility.

Just the thought of this keeps David Walker, our nation’s former Comptroller General awake at night.

Due to rising entitlement costs and the flood of pending retirees, Walker asserts that by 2040 America may only have enough money to pay for Social Security and Medicare—and nothing else. Traditionally, the Comptroller General (chief accountant) does not speak out about policy, but, given the severity of our fiscal climate, Walker felt compelled to do so. And so he has traveled the country on a “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour,” with the best minds of Washington’s leading conservative and liberal think tanks in tow, to sound the alarm.

Beyond the leadership of the Government Accountability Office, other organizations on the Tour include the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the Committee for Economic Development, the Association for Government Accountants, American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, AARP, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and multiple state treasurers and auditors.

No partisan, sneaky agenda here. Representatives from each of these diverse groups have come together for one reason: to educate the public about the nation’s fiscal crisis.

The tour was the brainchild of Walker while he was in charge of the GAO, but because the tour’s mission supersedes the agenda of one man or one group of people, Walker has continued as a part of the tour since leaving the GAO.

While the federal debt and entitlement spending rank somewhere near the bottom of any list of sexy political issues before Congress, they deserve our full attention.

The current deficit stands at more than $9 trillion. Meanwhile, according to the Heritage Foundation, the unfunded future obligations of the federal government now exceed $50 trillion. Heritage correlates this to a $170,000 financial burden for each American.

Recent government action, by a Republican administration no less, has merely compounded the problem. Perhaps the single most damaging action was President Bush’s decision to expand Medicare to include prescription drug benefits. According to Walker, America already faced a $15-20 trillion deficit at the time—and the prescription drug bill added an additional $8 trillion to the tab.

Unfortunately, Washington shows no signs of reigning in its reckless ways. Indeed, both Senators Obama and Clinton have proposed socialized medicine plans that would cost in upwards of $100 billion.

The problems of such proposals are manifold, not the least of which is that they are simply impractical. Indeed, we are already in serious fiscal trouble without another mammoth entitlement.

According to the Heritage Foundation, the 2008 federal budget is estimated by the Office of Management and Budget to be $2,931 billion, of which $615 billion (21 percent) represents Social Security spending and $396 billion (14 percent) represents Medicare spending.

If entitlement spending accounts for 35 percent of the federal budget prior to the flood of new retirees and the arrival of socialized medicine, what will it look like after those developments?

Still, there may yet be hope.

The “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour” has been on the road since September 2005, and has presented in more than 35 cities with no current plans to slow down. Turnout at these events has ranged up to 600 people and, in order to educate young people, the venues are usually college campuses.

In the end, Walker believes we need a truly bipartisan and comprehensive commitment to resolving this issue on both the legislative and executive levels. Indeed, he has described the fiscal crisis as a “nonpartisan problem that cries out for a bipartisan solution.”

But despite the broad ideological agreement amongst some of the smartest minds in Washington, politicians remain apathetic to the crisis—a crisis that, according to Walker, may be equal to that of terrorism.

At a time when many observers have said that politics has become more bitter and partisan than ever before, there is an opportunity here for true statesmanship. Politicians entrusted to represent the concerns of their constituencies on a federal scale would do well to “wake up” and seize this critical opportunity.