The mortgage you didn't know you have

Posted: May 25, 2006 12:05 PM

Washington politicians, especially on the GOP side, often complain about inheritance taxes. U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker, however, thinks elected officials should be talking about "the birth burden," the $156,000 that represents each American's share of the $8 trillion federal debt, plus $35 trillion in unfunded spending promises. Every child born in America receives this dubious legacy: a $156,000 IOU.

 Walker was in San Francisco on Tuesday, speaking at what participants call, "The Fiscal Wake-up Tour." Their first hurdle is to break through Americans' numbness on numbers. You see a tab in the billions, and it doesn't mean anything to you. So Walker puts the numbers in personal terms. The average household share of the federal fiscal mess is $411,000. Imagine if every household in America had a $411,000 mortgage, but no house.

 You can thank the crew in Washington -- President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress -- for, among other mistakes, passing a new Medicare prescription-drug benefit without paying for it. America's liabilities more than doubled from some $20 trillion in 2000 to $46 trillion in 2005, according to the Government Accountability Office.

 There is no easy fix, as Alison Acosta Fraser of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation noted. Conservatives like to talk about eliminating luxury items, like the National Endowment for the Arts, and pork-barrel projects that lawmakers insert into spending bills.

 Fraser agreed that the pork projects should be targeted because they are "emblematic" of Washington's overspending ways. Still, you can cut the pork earmarks, the NEA, as well as NASA and all foreign aid, and the result would be a blip in the overall picture. Federal spending would fall from an anticipated 50 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in 2050, to 48 percent of GDP, she said.

 The situation is so dire that, despite Heritage's longstanding aversion to tax increases, Fraser accepts that a proposed bipartisan commission on entitlement spending would have to look at raising taxes to fund Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits -- although she is careful to stipulate that she opposes increasing tax rates.

 From the left-leaning Brookings Institution, Diane Lim Rogers noted that America cannot balance future budgets on "tax cuts alone." Spending cuts have to be part of the package.

 Rogers noted that all Washington has "given up" on Congress doing anything important this year, although Walker believes that a bipartisan commission could provide the answer. In this era of intense partisan rancor, the thinking goes, only a bipartisan commission would have the brass to both raises taxes and cut spending.

 Whenever I write a column like this, readers e-mail me to ask what they can do. There is no easy answer. Sure, readers can tell their congressional representatives that they want a bipartisan commission and that they want Washington to reduce the deficit. Now.

 The fact is, those messages will ring hollow in a Capitol where politicians know well that the best way to win re-election is to promise something for nothing.

 So here's my advice: In state and local politics, look for the candidate who tells you what you don't want to hear. Look for the rare pol who argues that you -- not someone else -- have to give up something. Then vote for that person.

 The old saw says that people get the government they deserve. But if Washington continues to borrow and spend, your children and grandkids will pay mightily for a government they didn't deserve because they didn't elect it.