- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Americans don’t want a government that’s too big to fail, and they’re scared the cost of President Obama’s health care overhaul would overtax a system already bursting at the seams, says the man for-

mer President Bill Clinton tapped to oversee the government’s performance.

David M. Walker, the former comptroller general of the United States, says the angry outbursts at town halls nationwide show that every-day Americans are increasingly more aware and more concerned than their elected officials regarding the budget deficit, the national debt, and promises by the government to spend money it doesn’t have.

“Americans now know what a rainy day is,” said Mr. Walker, who oversaw the Government Accountability Office for a 10-year term. “Americans have seen firsthand as a result of the failing of some of the so-called ‘too big to fail’ financial institutions and insurance companies and other entities.”

“And, you know, they now are scared. They’re concerned about their jobs. They’re being more prudent about their consumption, they’re being more cautions about taking on debt, and they’re starting to save more.”

Mr. Walker is no anti-government hater of Mr. Obama. The president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a bipartisan nonprofit that was founded last year to raise awareness about America’s deficit and debt crisis, is usually very careful about saying anything that is explicitly critical of the Obama administration.

He said his charge that Washington doesn’t get the simmering anger at the grass-roots level is “not a partisan statement.”

“Frankly, George Walker Bush was probably the most fiscally irresponsible president in the history of the republic,” he said during a 15-minute phone interview Friday.

“But the challenge is that Obama could beat him.”

However, Mr. Walker did not mince words when criticizing the Obama administration’s approach to selling the president’s reforms.

“What’s happening is a repeat of the mistake that George Walker Bush made in connection with Social Security reform. He thought he had the answer and ended up engaging in a number of steps - including a variety of town hall meetings around the country - to try and sell what he thought the answer was,” Mr. Walker said.

“He did not effectively engage and listen to the American people. And the same thing is happening on health care reform,” he said. “Washington thinks it knows what the answer is and trying to go out and engage the American people to sell what they think the answer is. And that’s backwards.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the conversation about what Americans wanted took place “for two years each and every day on the campaign trail” during the presidential election.

“Two years ago, critics were hitting Obama for not having a plan fast enough because he wanted to develop one that made sense for what America needed. Now, it’s that we did it too fast,” Mr. Gibbs said by e-mail. “The idea that sufficient listening wasn’t done or debate wasn’t had is silly.”

The Peterson Foundation’s core message is that there is currently $483,000 of government-compiled debt weighing on each American household, adding up to more than $56 trillion in liabilities and unfunded promises. The bottom line, the group says, is that without massive reforms to the entitlement, tax and budget systems, the nation is headed for catastrophe.

A projected $1.8 trillion deficit and national debt approaching $12 trillion is just the tip of the iceberg, they say. Like the White House, the Peterson Foundation talks about entitlements as a major problem coming down the road. But unlike the White House, which emphasizes making care more cost-efficient, the foundation talks about the problem of demographics.

The foundation estimates that more than 10,000 baby boomers “will become eligible for Social Security benefits each day over the next two decades,” and points to the growing burden on younger workers as boomers live longer and the ratio of entitlement recipients to workers paying into the system becomes more disproportionate.

The foundation’s top-line proposal is to create a bipartisan panel similar to the 9/11 Commission that would do something similar to the nationwide “Fiscal Wakeup Tour” that Mr. Walker did during his last few years as comptroller, and then deliver recommendations to Congress.

Despite the Peterson Foundation’s reticence to weigh in against a president whose personal approval remains high, Mr. Walker laid down a clear marker of opposition to the Obama health care reforms during his interview.

“While there’s no question that we need comprehensive health care reform, and there’s no question that we ought to ultimately seek to achieve some level of basic and essential universal coverage that we can afford and sustain over time, that the first priority has to be cost,” Mr. Walker said.

“The president has committed, commendably, that he would not sign a bill that increased the deficit and debt levels over 10 years. Unfortunately they don’t have a bill that meets that requirement yet. But even if they do, what about beyond 10 years?” he said. “It’s pretty clear, although numbers haven’t come out, that things get worse beyond 10 years.”

“At least so far, the way that they’re proposing to pay for the bill. … will not keep pace with increased costs of health care over time.”

The Congressional Budget Office has sent lawmakers back to the drawing board several times after determining that early versions of a health care reform bill would cost more than $1 trillion over 10 years and would not come close to insuring the nearly 50 million Americans who are not currently covered.

Since then, congressional committees have cut the cost down to a few hundred billion in the House while the Senate Finance Committee has yet to produce a final version.

Mr. Walker said that “what’s being talked about now, there’s no way it’s affordable and sustainable.”

“This country has promised way more than it can deliver, that out of control health care costs threaten to bankrupt this country, that we need to make very tough choices on payment systems, on end of life care, on taxpayer subsidies for employer-provided and paid health care, on premium subsidies for Medicare, on how we pay and what we pay for with regard to health care,” he said. “Yes we need to have some level of basic and essential health care coverage that’s universal, but we need to have an honest discussion and debate about what level we can afford and sustain.”

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