This week on Facing the Future, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Concord Coalition with our national co-chairs, Democrat and former Nebraska Senator and Governor Bob Kerrey, and Republican and former Missouri Senator and Attorney General Jack Danforth, about the current and future fiscal challenges facing the United States. Senators Kerrey and Danforth chaired the 1994 Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform established by President Clinton.
Later on in the program we also spoke with Rich Ashooh, who worked on the staff of Concord Coalition co-founder New Hampshire Republican Senator Warren Rudman for years and was the very first New Hampshire state director of The Concord Coalition. Ashooh is a senior fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire and has held many roles in government and the private sector, including as Assistant U.S. Secretary of Commerce. His current role is Vice President for Global Government Affairs at the Lam research corporation.
Both Senators Kerrey and Danforth between the two of them served in Congress with Concord Coalition co-founders, the late Senators Paul Tsongas (D-MA) and Warren Rudman (R-NH). And both lament that progress made towards shrinking the size of the federal budget deficit in the mid to late 1990s has given way to a bipartisan abandonment of fiscal responsibility, and an exponential increase in the national debt. Danforth says while on the Democratic side many argue that debt and deficits aren’t the crisis that Concord has been warning about, many of his fellow Republicans have completely unrealistic expectations for how to make federal budgets more sustainable.
“I have always believed that a high national debt is injurious to the country - it hurts our children and our grandchildren. And If you tell people we’ve got a problem because the national debt will end up being 185% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), people will say you’re right, we’ve got to do something about it, we’ve got to cut waste, fraud and abuse!” said Danforth. “The problem is for the entitlement programs, they’re just check writing programs. For Social Security, where is the inefficiency? It is so phony, but people want to believe it. What they really want to believe is that they can get more benefits on less taxes. And that is the political applause line.”
Senator Kerrey says after 15 years of having interest rates so low that it has masked the cost of borrowing trillions of dollars to fund various spending ventures and tax cuts, inflation and rising interest rates to combat inflation will really start to catch up with Congress and presidential administrations for the next few years.
“There is a list of things that Congress has to vote on every year to appropriate it, whether it’s climate, defense, children, infrastructure of any kind, you have to cast a vote for it. Without a single vote, the cost of living adjustment in January for Social Security will increase spending by more than $100 billion, and nobody is voting on that. Not a single vote!” said Kerrey. We are literally robbing from the future to pay for the past. That’s what it amounts to. We are loading up this debt upon young Americans.”
But both Kerrey and Danforth say despite the ongoing challenges, it is not a reason to be pessimistic about getting voters to pressure elected officials to tackle the national debt and put the federal budget on a more sustainable path.
“The only thing that could possibly induce a political response is to force the issue,” said Danforth. “I mean in campaign after campaign, for the media to be hounding candidates, for organizations such as ours to be raising the visibility of the issue so that politicians couldn’t just dance around it anymore.”
“It increases the importance of The Concord Coalition,” said Kerrey. “You can look in Congress and see a Joe Manchin or people who are actually trying to do something about the debt. Of 535 members of Congress, the number of members who care about this issue and actually do something about it is not zero. We need to praise the people who care about it and are actually doing something about it. When Paul Tsongas ran for President in 1992, he had a great message. It was economic patriotism. People all the time tell me thank you for your military service. But you don’t need to go into combat today to do something good for your country. What we need are economic patriots who understand that freedom isn’t free.”
Rich Ashooh echoes that message and says it actually resonates strongly with the current generation of young people he sees and interacts with in his role as a senior fellow at the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy.
“In my experience, those of us who are war weary with notches in our belts and battle scars need to be listening to young people,” said Ashooh. “A lot of them are carrying this enormous debt. This generation has been awakened far earlier to the perils of debt and interest than any of us ever have. So we should not assume off the bat that they don’t ‘get it.’ I do think the challenge is how do we spin that into activity that can help the body politic, because ultimately politicians will be responsive to what the people say. And that is the deal with the younger set, the post college population. We need to give them the confidence that their concerns and their votes matter.”
Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join my guests and me as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.