Des Moines Register Op-Ed by Sara Imhof:
In September 1992, three concerned public figures launched the deficit-fighting Concord Coalition in front of a national debt clock in New York City. It then showed the federal debt at just over $4 trillion.
Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., former Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Peter G. Peterson were all deeply worried about the size and trajectory of that debt.
Their warnings on the subject were prescient, and 20 years later, worth remembering as Washington struggles to avoid the year-end “fiscal cliff” and, for the longer term, develop a comprehensive plan to put the federal budget on a more responsible and sustainable path.
We can see now how justified the concerns expressed in that 1992 press conference were: The $4 trillion debt has become a $16 trillion debt. It is rising rapidly and is expected to continue doing so, with a tax system riddled with costly subsidies and the big federal entitlement programs straining to meet the demands of an aging population.
Even the most aggressive fiscal reform plans do not envision returning to a balanced budget for decades.
Rudman, Tsongas and Peterson created the Concord Coalition as a bipartisan, grassroots organization to help the American public understand the country’s fiscal and economic challenges — and to push elected officials to make the difficult choices and principled compromises that were needed.
Rudman, who died last month at age 82, spoke eloquently at the 1992 press conference about the need to move beyond special-interest agendas and to focus on “economic growth and a future for the kids of this country.”
He also worried about workers across the country who “don’t want to see the American dream slip through their hands.”
Rudman lamented the misunderstandings and simplistic solutions that often leave people with a distorted sense of the nation’s challenges. For too many years, he said, “the American people have been led to believe that if we eliminate waste and fraud, and cut congressional perks, and cut out foreign aid, somehow we can balance the budget.”
He warned — correctly — that without substantial policy changes, interest payments on the federal debt would claim more and more tax dollars.
Today, the United States enjoys interest rates that are extremely low by historical standards. When those rates return to more normal levels, as they inevitably will at some point, it will dramatically increase the government’s interest costs. Much of that money will flow overseas, to foreign creditors.
As Rudman neared the end of his 12 years in the Senate — he chose not seek a third term in 1992 — he saw public knowledge and engagement as essential to persuading elected officials to make the difficult budget decisions.
“Presently serving in the U.S. Senate,” he said, “I can tell you that it’s not that people (in Washington) don’t know what to do. It is that there is a great fear of doing what has to be done — because there is little understanding out there in the country about what should be done.”
The last two decades have shown that the warnings of Rudman, Tsongas and Peterson were all too well founded. Procrastination and shortsighted decisions in Washington, in fact, have left the country in even greater fiscal danger.
That’s why public pressure on Washington to change course is even more important than ever. Fortunately, millions of ordinary Americans do grasp the fundamental importance of fiscal responsibility. During this year’s election campaign, polls showed widespread concern about the national debt and the risks it posed to our economic future.
When the Concord Coalition presents programs across the country, we find that audiences are eager to learn more about these issues and to engage in thoughtful conversations about the federal budget.
They are willing to make some sacrifices now with the expectation of greater long-term gains — such as lower deficits, a simpler and more efficient tax code, and more sustainable entitlement programs.
And they want their elected officials in Washington to reach across party lines, be open to compromise, and focus on the national interest rather than narrow parochial concerns and partisan calculations.
Elected officials should heed that advice as they negotiate a good alternative to the fiscal cliff and lay the groundwork for long-term reforms that will strengthen the country and leave our children with a brighter economic future.