The two of us have a history that dates back all the way to 1994. But back then there was a much different dynamic to our relationship. We were opponents in a heated race for the seat in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in which Gov. John Baldacci ultimately prevailed. But even though we had our much-publicized differences during that time we have come to respect and appreciate each other’s differing views on various issues.
However, one topic on which we see eye to eye is the country’s soaring national debt. We both know that our current fiscal course is unsustainable and must be reversed before further damage is done.
Realizing that this problem must be confronted immediately is what led us to Capitol Hill to participate in a fly-in last week with the Campaign to Fix the Debt. This was a unique opportunity to meet with our elected leaders to convey the message that a comprehensive deficit reduction agreement is exactly what’s required to get the American economy back on track.
The debt truly is today’s most pressing issue because its skyrocketing trajectory encompasses so many of our other issues, and fixing it would address many of them, all at once. Our debt burden threatens everything from the solvency of the nation’s vital social safety net programs to investments in the country’s future. A smart plan to bring down the deficit and start controlling our out-of-hand national debt can help solve these problems.
So far, in its attempt to deal with our soaring debt, our federal government has only made things worse. An across-the-board spending cut of domestic programs — the “sequester” — both puts a squeeze on our still-recovering economy in the short term, and does nothing to shore up our long-term economic outlook.
And it’s that long-term outlook that really worries us.
Right now, as a share of the economy, our national debt is larger than it has been since the immediate aftermath of World War II. And though a hole trillions of dollars deep is abstract and almost impossible to fathom, it’s a hole that, if it keeps getting deeper, could lead to grave consequences: higher interest rates, inflation, even greater unemployment and the specter of slower economic growth.
The growth in interest we owe on our debt — as well as our increasingly costly entitlement programs and a tax code that is inefficient and outdated — threatens to squeeze important investments, such as those to fix our crumbling infrastructure, right out of our budget.
This is a future that we can’t let come to pass. And while we can’t simply cut ourselves out of the hole, or tax our way out or even grow our way out, we can and must develop a smart plan to start — finally — controlling our debt. A smart plan would be one that finds savings from all parts of the budget. It would make smart cuts in wasteful or underperforming programs. It would reform our tax code to make it simpler, fairer and more conducive to economic growth and a bigger revenue generator for the government. It would also strengthen our entitlement programs to make them more efficient, slow their cost growth and ensure they will be there for those who need them most in the generations to come. All these changes should be phased in slowly, so as to protect our recovery and give people the time to plan for coming changes.
A plan like this will have to be bold, and it will have to be bipartisan. Only by working together across the political divide can our elected leaders in Washington hope to achieve such an agreement. We are living proof that such cooperation is possible.
The fact that it will be politically challenging for Washington politicians to agree with one another is why we’re members of the of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a bipartisan group made up of small- and big-business leaders, former national and local elected officials and hundreds of thousands of citizen-activists from coast to coast. Together, we’re hoping to show our leaders in Washington that there’s a demand for a deal that would make us all better off in the long run.
Folks in Maine and throughout the country desperately want our leaders to work together and confront our nation’s long-term economic problems. We did our best to express that sentiment during our meetings on Capitol Hill, and we’ll continue to make our voices heard until we have fixed the debt.
Former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, and former Maine Senate President Rick Bennett, a Republican, are co-chairmen of the Campaign to Fix the Debt’s Maine chapter. Bennett was recently elected chairman of the Maine Republican Party.