BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Debt Bomb’
Most politicians prefer platitudes and happy talk. Think “The fundamentals of the economy are strong,” “Prosperity is around the corner” and President Obama’s ill-fated “recovery summer.” Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, is different.
“America is already bankrupt,” he declares bluntly early on in his new book. “Our payments on our obligations - our unfunded liabilities - exceed our income as far as the eye can see,” Mr. Coburn continues. “No amount of obtainable growth or tax revenue will be enough.”
In “The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington From Bankrupting America,” Mr. Coburn agrees with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels that red ink is the country’s new red menace. He argues that without a comprehensive agenda to reduce federal spending, the burgeoning debt crisis will hollow the country from within and tank the economy.
To go with his dire diagnosis of the problem, Mr. Coburn presents some solutions. But first he explains his view of how we got here. One problem is ignoring the Constitution: “The problems we face today are the consequences of policies enacted in the 1930s that put Congress in the business of doing things outside of its enumerated powers,” he declares.
What of Mr. Obama’s view of how the national debt got out of control? In a speech last year, the president asserted that everything was just fine with budget surpluses until “the money was spent on trillions of dollars in new tax cuts, while two wars and an expensive prescription drug program were simply added to our nation’s credit card.”
Mr. Obama didn’t exactly clamor for the reversal of any of those policies, except the portion of the tax cuts going to the highest-income earners. But the implication was clear that it was all George W. Bush’s fault. Mr. Coburn acknowledges that the “compassionate conservative” administration was “[i]n many respects … a fiscal disaster.”
“He refused to rein in excessive spending and failed to veto Republican appropriations bills loaded with earmarks,” Mr. Coburn says of the previous president. “He also made no serious effort to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghan-istan by cutting spending.” But the senator contends the war spending is dwarfed by the long-term unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare and that letting the tax cuts lapse would further damage a fragile economy.
Mr. Coburn blasts the Obama administration stimulus as “too big to succeed.” He lambastes the political class and laments what one chapter title describes as the “dying Constitution.” He recalls his own brushes with bridges to nowhere and entitled appropriators.
But the meat of the book is Mr. Coburn’s suggestions for “defusing the debt bomb.” He calls for an end to duplicative federal spending, noting the existence of 80 economic development programs, 82 teacher training initiatives and more than 100 surface transportation programs.
Mr. Coburn argues for entitlement reforms that recognize that the programs face “unsustainable demographics and unsustainable benefits.” He outlines several proposals to curb Medicare spending through consumer-driven competition, including both House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan and his own collaboration with Sen. Joe Lieberman. He calls for a combination of means testing, retirement age increases and formula adjustments to fix Social Security.
In addition to tackling entitlements, Mr. Coburn would repeal and replace Obamacare. He further argues that it is possible to achieve Ronald Reagan’s peace through strength while streamlining the Pentagon budget. “Politicians love to ask for more defense spending,” he writes, “yet the fact is, America’s defenses have been decaying for decades despite increasing budgets.” The senator points out that even though spending has grown, combat forces have decreased: “We are spending more to get less.”
Most of “The Debt Bomb” will be uncontroversial to conservatives. But Mr. Coburn does endorse the basic framework of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission, a deficit reduction panel on which the senator served, calling for savings along these lines: “$3 trillion from entitlements, $3 trillion from discretionary and other accounts, $1 trillion in defense, $1 trillion in ending some spending in the tax code, and about $1 trillion through avoiding interest costs.”
This has placed Mr. Coburn in conflict with some supply-siders, who regard Simpson-Bowles as a substantial tax increase, and national security hawks, who worry that he cuts military spending too much. “The Debt Bomb” contains pointed references to anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. But whatever you think of Mr. Coburn’s Gang of Six, he has written a scathing assessment of Washington’s gang that couldn’t stop spending.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.