Last year, instead of identifying al Qaeda as the greatest threat to our national security, President Obama’s top military officer warned that the real danger facing America is our national debt.
Mr. Obama’s Treasury secretary testified before Congress in February that the interest burden on that debt is unsustainable.
Despite the ominous warnings from his own advisers and the president’s lip service to solving America’s fiscal crisis, the administration’s latest budget proposal offered no real solutions to our nation’s greatest challenge.
Sadly, many in Congress also seem unwilling to state publicly the steps any serious policymaker understands must be taken - tackling runaway spending and entitlement costs. As one retired politician and lawyer, we may not poll too well, but we do have the freedom of not facing angry voters in the fall for talking tough on what a common-sense solution looks like.
Our proposal is a simple one: Use the debt-ceiling debate to vote on legislation establishing a 10-year framework for bringing the debt under control. Under this plan, a staggered debt ceiling would require policymakers to make greater budget reductions every year, shrinking the deficit annually until it reaches zero in the 10th year, and the ceiling levels out. If necessary, the legislation could provide a framework for sequestering funds to enforce the limits.
To avoid the too-easy temptation of waiving the annual spending cut requirement, there must be a joint agreement disallowing revisions to the annual debt ceiling in the absence of extraordinary circumstances. And extraordinary circumstances cannot include the lack of political will in Washington.
This mechanism would not only force tough choices each year to meet the target but also force all sides to come together with reasonable proposals to deal with the elephant in the room - exploding entitlements.
If our debt is the greatest threat to our national security, as Adm. Mike Mullen has clearly stated, it would be grossly negligent to not tackle it. Unfortunately, the president’s unsustainable budget sets up a game of Russian roulette with the confidence of global financial markets. Playing that game is not worth the risk.
In addition to addressing our long-term fiscal crisis, by demonstrating that the deficit will be reduced to zero, this debt-ceiling approach will spur a significant growth in the private sector now. Without the debt ax hanging over their heads, entrepreneurs and businesses will be willing to invest and create jobs, which should generate more revenue now and for the future.
While there are many other well-meaning proposals out there, most are dead on arrival, such as the plan to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. In the current fractious political atmosphere, the significant super-majority votes required to pass a constitutional amendment and the length of time it would require to get the amendment ratified by the requisite number of states and votes to adopt it, make the chances of adopting such a plan little more than wishful thinking.
With the debt-ceiling debate coming up in Congress shortly, now is the time to act on a common-sense proposal, and a mandatory, staggered deficit-cutting plan is the first step.
Congress cannot continue to fail to address our fiscal crisis and leave our children and grandchildren stuck with a bill they cannot pay.
Christopher S. Bond, former Republican senator from Missouri, and Warren L. Dean Jr. are partners at Thompson Coburn.