Guest Columnists: Time is Running Out for the United States to Clean Up Budget

The following Op-Ed was published by the Des Moines Register on November 11, 2011.

By Robert L. Bixby and Sara Imhof

How much will you pay in taxes in the years ahead? What sort of health care will you and your family receive over the next decade?

How much assistance will Washington give to farmers, college students and homeowners struggling with their mortgages?

How worried should you be about your retirement, or your children’s financial future?

All that and more may be at stake next week when a special congressional committee is supposed to issue its recommendations for reducing federal deficits over the next 10 years.

The need for sweeping changes in the federal budget is clear. Whether this “super committee” is up to the job is not.

But an event in Des Moines Monday night — a deficit-reduction exercise open to the public — may shed some light on what the 12-member committee should do and how much support it can expect from voters for making tough decisions that could put the country on a more responsible course.

The federal debt will hit

$15 trillion this month. Government projections show that debt snowballing in the years ahead — even assuming a full economic recovery and reductions in U.S. military commitments abroad.

Medicare, for example, will continue to grow rapidly as the population ages and health care costs rise faster than the general inflation rate. Social Security and Medicaid costs will also rise quickly. The Government Accountability Office recently warned that in 15 years these three programs, along with interest on the debt, might well consume all government revenue.

This would mean even heavier borrowing just to pay for basic government functions — national defense, the judicial system, highways, the national parks and so on. Interest rates would climb and the federal debt would eventually exceed the entire U.S. economy.

Absent reform, we will leave our children and future generations with enormous debt, a weaker economy, higher taxes, lower living standards and a diminished international role.

Short-term thinking, excessive partisanship and political cowardice have contributed to the failure of elected officials in Washington to put the country on a more sustainable path. Last summer Congress created the super committee to see whether it could succeed where lawmakers have so often failed in the past.

The committee faces difficult choices in many areas: defense spending, domestic programs that Congress approves on an annual basis, big entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, and tax policy.

In addition, the panel’s long-term deficit-reduction plan must be put together without jeopardizing the nation’s recovery from severe recession.

On the positive side, a presidential commission and several other groups have offered many thoughtful recommendations and demonstrated that there is room for compromise and bipartisan agreement.

The deficit-reduction exercise Monday night is designed to help Iowans understand these same challenges and choices. Developed by the non-partisan Concord Coalition and sponsored by The Des Moines Register and Drake University’s College of Business and Public Administration, the exercise will run from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the university’s Olmsted Center.

Although the program is free, reservations are appreciated and can be made at

Working in small groups, participants will discuss and decide upon dozens of policy options that could increase or decrease federal deficits. The goal will be to identify the best ways to reduce federal borrowing in the coming decade while still providing essential government services and strengthening the economy.

The exercise should help Iowans hold elected officials and candidates accountable for their fiscal policy proposals. In addition, Concord relies upon the results of such exercises in advocating for more responsible policies in Washington.

We hope you will join us Monday night. We need your help.