Like me, you might get a good laugh when a friend wakes up after a long night out only to realize that he left a tab open at the bar and ran up a bill he can’t afford. Our leaders in Congress seem to have done much the same thing. But it’s much less funny when you consider that we will be the ones paying for their drunken spending.
In 2008, the federal government’s obligations – that is, the money it has promised citizens who qualify for programs including Medicare, Social Security and veterans’ benefits – ballooned to $56.4 trillion. Each individual’s share of that bill is $184,000. Having maxed out the national credit card, members of Congress are now seeking a higher national debt limit as they go out on yet another binge. Before they do, it’s about time young people said something.
Over the last decade, our government has turned steady surpluses into monstrous deficits, doubling the national debt, which now exceeds $12 trillion. In 2009 alone, our budget deficit hit a record $1.4 trillion. We had to borrow about 40 cents on every dollar we spent. And the $383 billion we paid in interest on the national debt is enough to have covered the entire war in Afghanistan to date. At the same time, our representatives failed to address what the Government Accountability Office predicts to be a $62 trillion long-term fiscal gap created by unfunded liabilities in programs including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The consequences of this recklessness will soon be magnified.
Consider that, within the next 10 years, the amount of money our federal government brings in will barely be enough to pay for mandatory spending on our main entitlement programs and debt interest – and that spending won’t even include the other main functions of government, from defense to education. As the red ink continues to rise, our dollar will decline, and we will be at the mercy of foreign creditors like China, who will determine interest rates and own an even greater stake in our country.
Two things are clear. First, our current fiscal path is dangerous and unsustainable. Second, as the GAO recently wrote, “the longer action to deal with the nation’s long-term fiscal outlook is delayed, the larger the changes will need to be, increasing the likelihood that they will be disruptive and destabilizing.” Now is the time to act.
On Jan. 20, the Senate is expected to vote on a measure to raise the federal debt limit – or the amount of money our government can borrow to pay its bills – by some $1.8 trillion. It will be the fifth such vote in less than two years and an opportune time to hold our leaders accountable. We must demand that they begin taking action to address our fiscal challenges – from re-establishing budget controls to managing entitlement spending. But it seems the regular order of our current legislative process, marked by institutionalized partisanship and myopia, is ill-equipped to handle such a task.
A proposal by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) – to be offered as an amendment to the debt increase bill – will solve that problem by creating a bipartisan fiscal commission. Comprised of 18 members – legislators equally divided between chambers and parties, the Treasury secretary and a presidential appointee – the commission would study the problems before us and make recommendations that would be fast-tracked for a vote in Congress. The commission model has been effectively employed before, most notably under President Reagan in 1983 when Social Security’s solvency was successfully extended through a series of reforms.
Young people have the most to lose from continued inaction and should urge their senators to support this proposal. No longer can we accept more of the same bipartisanship – or Republicans trading their tax cuts to Democrats for their spending programs – as we dig ourselves deeper into debt. Being good stewards of our nation and the American dream requires making tough choices and working together in a sensible and productive manner.
As Thomas Jefferson often noted, one generation passing trillions of dollars of debt on to another is not just irresponsible – it is also immoral. Our elected officials have no right to squander the security and prosperity of citizens not yet enfranchised or not yet even born. It’s time for the millennial generation to organize and take a stand on this issue – not just for ourselves, but for our own posterity.
Nick Troiano is a junior in the College and the co-chair of MillennialDEBT, an online campaign for an entitlement and budget task force. “