I know I join many Mainers in being disappointed with the current Washington debate over the need to reduce our national debt and avoid a default crisis. Some on the far right say that we simply need to stop out-of-control spending. Some on the left say that all we need to do is get rid of some Bush-era policies. I think the real answer probably falls somewhere in between.
Unfortunately, Washington seems to be more interested in posturing and scoring political points. Politicians are pursuing narrow agendas to please their bases. I think we need to take a more balanced approach because it isn’t just one issue that has brought us to this point.
If Washington can get its act together, I believe we have a real opportunity to avoid a default crisis and set our country on a more sustainable fiscal path for the long term. But getting to that point requires an honest examination of how we got to where we are today.
Not long ago our country was running record federal budget surpluses, and now our total national debt exceeds $14 trillion. So what happened over the last decade? As it turns out, it’s a combination of factors.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, or CBPP, recently examined the projections of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. They found that the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a huge chunk of our current debt problem. In fact, they account for almost half of the $20 trillion in debt that, under current policies, the nation will owe by 2019. The Recovery Act and Wall Street bailout also contributed, but they will account for less than 10 percent of the debt at that time.
In addition, the impacts of the worst recession since the Great Depression cannot be understated. The crash of the housing market that resulted from the irresponsibility and gambles of Wall Street has really taken its toll — not only on the unemployment rate, but also on the debt. As CPBB points out, the changed economic outlook alone accounts for over $400 billion of the deficit each year in 2009 through 2011 and only slightly smaller amounts in subsequent years. Due to these increased annual deficits, hundreds of billions of dollars will also be added to those figures each year just so that we can pay the interest on all of the increased borrowing.
I’m not writing this column to depress those that read it, place blame, or say that I have all the answers. But I do think it’s worth a look at the real numbers behind the current debate so that we can understand the underpinnings of it and have an honest, substantive, nonpartisan discussion moving forward. Right now, that’s what a majority of Americans want, but they’re not getting it from Washington.
I voted against the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, the Wall Street bailout, funding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and giveaways to the major oil companies. And while without these expenditures we wouldn’t be in such deep debt, I recognize they represent only part of the picture.
Not surprisingly, most Mainers are closer to where we should be as a country than most members of the U.S. House or Senate. I’ve read the letters and emails coming into my office from those concerned about the debt and all of the political gamesmanship surrounding the debt ceiling. I’ve also polled Mainers through my Facebook page. Whether it’s the ability to take out a mortgage, access capital for a small business, afford a new car purchase, or receive Social Security and veterans benefits when they need them, Mainers know that these are critical issues that directly impact their lives.
Members of Congress and President Barack Obama should listen closely to the people they represent. The American people don’t want a plan that comes from the right or from the left. This really shouldn’t be a partisan issue. We need to look beyond the rhetoric and focus on a balanced solution that is based on real numbers.
At the end of the day, I believe that Washington must come together and pass a comprehensive plan that includes tax reforms, spending reductions and smart policies that will spur economic growth. This combination will bring down the deficit in the long term because it’s not just one thing that has brought us to this point; it’s a combination of factors.
Mike Michaud represents Maine’s 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.