Debt Continues to be Growing Threat

March 7, 2011

Last month, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called America’s debt “the greatest threat to our national security.” Testifying at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said, “If we as a country do not address our fiscal imbalances in the near-term, our national power will erode, and the costs to our ability to maintain and sustain influence could be great.”  Admiral Mullen’s assessment should serve as a grave call to action to address our unsustainable spending, which contributes to our mounting national debt. 

Over the coming weeks, Congress needs to make the difficult decisions that are necessary to reduce federal expenditures and begin bringing them in line with our revenues.  The Treasury Department now estimates our deficit will reach $1.6 trillion this year.  This is unacceptable, and if we fail to act, our children and grandchildren will be forced to pay the bill. 

                              Spending Freeze is No Solution

In his annual budget request, President Obama called for a five-year federal spending freeze, a proposal that means hardly anything.  Spending escalated dramatically over the last two years as President Obama’s signature legislation, the $1 trillion stimulus and the $1 trillion health care law, added to the problems we face.  Continuing deficits of $1.6 trillion for the next five years would be harmful and worsen our fiscal crisis. 

Simply capping our spending is not an option.  As our national debt increases, the cost of the interest on the debt rises too.  Higher taxes will be required to pay this interest, threatening an already weak economic recovery.  The American people want us to go in a different direction.  Senate Democrats recently acknowledged that the President’s plan will not work, but they have yet to provide a solution that makes the cuts we need.

                                        Eliminating Duplication

Last week, the House and Senate passed a two-week continuing resolution, which cuts $4 billion in spending immediately while avoiding a federal government shutdown.  This bill is a good start, but there is still a long way to go.  We now have the opportunity to make additional cuts and put our country back on a fiscally responsible path. 

Short-term budget approaches like the continuing resolution are merely stop gap measures to allow Congress to develop a long-term plan.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report recently that identified many federal programs that could be reined in or eliminated completely.  According to GAO, "Reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, or fragmentation could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars annually and help agencies provide more efficient and effective services.”

While many federal programs may achieve laudable goals, each should be on the table and examined closely.  Our approach to spending reductions needs to make sense, but the status quo must stop.  For this reason, I cut my Senate office budget by five percent, and I have challenged other members to join me.  If we are going to make tough choices, we should start with our own offices.

                                        Leadership Needed

In mid-February, 150 economists wrote to President Obama urging him to address our deficit.  The letter stated, “Action is needed now to begin to slow government spending, reduce uncertainty and support the creation of new private-sector jobs.”  I hope the President and Congress will join together and provide true leadership on this issue.