OTHER VOICES: Press Candidates on Fiscal Responsibility

The following Op-Ed was originally published in the Sioux City Journal on December 25, 2011

By Sara Imhof

For many Americans, this time of the year provides an opportunity for reflection and renewal. Every four years, Iowans also have a flurry of political activity as we prepare for our first-in-the-nation presidential contest. So this is a good time to consider some ideas relating to reflection, renewal and politics, using the key issue of U.S. fiscal responsibility as the focus.

America's Founding Fathers felt a moral obligation to leave their children and future generations with a strong and prosperous nation. Their generation took risks and made many sacrifices for those who would follow them.

Unfortunately, that spirit is often lacking in modern America. The federal budget for many years has moved in the opposite direction: Building up debt and unfunded liabilities that are to be passed on to our children and grandchildren.

The nonpartisan Concord Coalition is dedicated to putting the country on a more responsible course. As an Iowan as well as Concord's Midwest regional director, I urge voters to carefully evaluate the presidential candidates' proposals for dealing with the nation's fiscal problems: large projected deficits in the years ahead, entitlement programs that are on unsustainable tracks, a chaotic tax system and the need to build a sound foundation for economic growth.

Concord believes intergenerational equity is paramount. The United States has a pattern of collecting tax revenue at about 18 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) while spending around 21 percent of GPD. The recession and slow recovery have widened the revenue-spending gap in recent years and government projections show annual deficits of more than $1 trillion in the future, even after a full economic recovery. Growing interest costs associated with this ballooning and eventually crippling national debt will force larger cuts or higher taxes.

It is critical that the presidential candidates offer specific ideas about changing this pattern. They should explain, for example, how they would ensure the solvency of critical safety net and retirement programs. They should spell out how we will pay our way rather than leave more unpaid bills to our children.

If a candidate takes a dim view of raising additional revenues, it is particularly important that he or she provide detailed explanations of the government services and benefits they would be willing to give up. Vague promises to "cut waste" are insufficient.

Leaving heavy debts to future generations will crimp their ability to deal with military threats, financial crises and other unexpected events that will come up during their lifetimes. Each generation has their own challenges; let's not automatically lower our children's standards by living beyond our means today.

With a national debt exceeding $15 trillion, the best way forward is to pursue policies that are deemed fair and just by people of different ages, ideologies and income brackets.

Questions to ask ourselves as well as candidates might include: Are we acting as good fiscal and civil stewards? Are we contributing our fair share to society? Are we demanding only those government benefits and services that we are willing to pay for?

All Americans benefit from government in various ways, so the burdens of deficit reduction should be borne by all. We need elected officials who understand that, and who are willing to set responsible budget priorities and find equitable ways to pay for them.

Beyond all the budget numbers are profound moral issues: Fairly distributing the burdens of society, helping those who are truly in need, paying for what we want, and protecting future generations from heavy debts they had no say in creating.

In weighing the candidates who ask for our support in the coming year, we should consider how each of them has addressed these fundamental issues. It is important that they would use public office to help put the country on a more responsible and sustainable path, one that will not only benefit Americans today but ensure a stronger nation for those of tomorrow.

Sara Imhof is Midwest regional director for the Concord Coalition, a nationwide, nonpartisan grassroots organization which advocates for generationally responsible fiscal policies.