- - Monday, September 23, 2013

The past decade has been a disaster when it comes to fiscal stewardship and political leadership. Our official federal debt has tripled, and the best measure of our fiscal burden — the total of federal liabilities and unfunded obligations — has soared even more, to more than $70 trillion during the next 75 years. Washington is in partisan and ideological gridlock with prospects for a fiscal “grand bargain” this year being remote, and perhaps unlikely until 2017. For the first time in America’s history, we are on course to leave future generations with a country that is worse off than the one we inherited.

I have sounded this alarm throughout the past 10 years, stating bluntly that our situation is dire and that the solutions will require the public and our elected officials to put partisanship aside and act in the best interests of our nation. The good news is that most Americans understand we have a problem and want something done about it. In addition, we still have time to right the ship of state. As I see it, there are some steps that we need to take to preserve the American Dream for our children and grandchildren:

We need to set a realistic fiscal objective for 2013. A grand bargain is not in the cards, and Congress needs to pass a short-term continuing resolution to keep government funded. The House did so on Friday and sent the measure to the Senate. Still, a funding agreement for fiscal 2014 should include several fiscal actions in addition to raising the debt ceiling.

Congress and the president should work together to replace the senseless sequestration with alternative mandatory and discretionary spending cuts for at least the next two years. They should also set targets for additional spending reductions through social-insurance reforms and additional revenues through comprehensive tax reform. The relevant congressional committees should be charged with coming up with related legislation by a specified date.

To ensure more timely and informed actions moving forward, Congress should also enact biennial budgeting, a meaningful no-budget-no-pay bill, the recently introduced Inform Act, and a substantive Government Transformation Commission that can recommend cost-control measures. Finally, the individual mandate under Obamacare should be delayed, because the government is not ready to implement it effectively.

We must change the way the federal government keeps score. Right now, policymakers focus on annual deficits and 10-year baselines. A more comprehensive and credible approach should take into consideration all our unfunded promises and liabilities, including Social Security, Medicare and civilian and military retirement obligations, and a much longer time frame. Importantly, that figure can go down if we achieve a responsible grand bargain — unlike the amount shown on our National Debt Clock. We also need to focus our fiscal reform efforts on the ratio of debt to gross domestic product, and not the budget deficit. In fact, we should ultimately replace the debt ceiling with a debt-to-GDP limit.

We must broaden the fiscal message to include state and local governments. They share many of the fiscal woes of the federal government, including huge unfunded pension and retiree health obligations. They are more vulnerable than the federal government for several reasons. They can’t print money, and their credit ratings are at risk. In addition, “bad news flows downhill” — meaning that as the federal government restructures its finances, which will ultimately happen, it will cut back on the funding that state and local governments rely upon. Therefore, it is critical that cities and states act quickly to get their fiscal houses in order.

We need to fix our dysfunctional democracy. Unless we dramatically reform our political system, we will be unable to address the key fiscal challenges and other sustainability tasks that lie ahead. This will require redistricting reform (gerrymandering has made countless districts uncompetitive), revisions of our current primary system, more equitable and consistent requirements for ballot access, extensive campaign-finance reform and term limits. If Congress won’t act on these and other needed reforms, we should also consider a state-based effort to convene a “clean call” Constitutional Convention under Article V that would propose specific fiscal, political and states-rights amendments for ratification by three-fourths of the states.

We must build on successful public engagement models. President Obama can take a lesson from former President Bill Clinton, who promoted Social Security reforms by joining other public officials and public policy experts in town hall meetings across the country. By emulating this strategy of citizen education and engagement, the president can energize and activate the American public, providing the “cover” that many politicians need to support actions that carry political risk.

We must address our biggest deficit — the leadership deficit. Our elected officials have shown too little backbone when we need the courage and conviction that goes with true leadership. This will take both the emergence of nontraditional leaders and political reforms that will encourage more qualified people to seek office.

Ultimately, however, it is “We the People” who must take the lead. Independent-minded Americans of all political affiliations and diverse groups need to come together to focus on common concerns and goals. My travels across the country have convinced me that a significant majority of Americans would rally behind specific economic and political reforms, as long as they are deemed to be comprehensive and fair. In the end, the prescription we need is a consensus for action, and a voting public that says “enough” to politicians who refuse to be part of the solution.

David M. Walker is a former U.S. comptroller general.