Having served at local, county and state levels of government in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I feel I have a pretty good understanding of the need for fiscal responsibility in the public sector. It is vital that each type and function of government operate within its means. I was known in public service for working toward an efficient, effective and responsive government that would also always be fiscally responsible.
So it is natural that the idea of being fiscally responsible at the national level should be subjected to the same principle. As a nation we have repeatedly ignored or delayed our obligation to address the national debt and it has become a serious issue. Policy makers, the press and the public always seem to assume “somebody will figure this out and do something about it.” So far that has not happened! If we don’t take immediate steps to corral this problem, we could be looking at a major economic crisis in the very near future.
Over the past several years, the national debt has skyrocketed to unsustainable heights. If we continue on our current course of inaction, we will enable economic turmoil both here in Pennsylvania and across the entire nation, and it will reduce our leadership role in the world. This mountain of debt is already crowding out funding for our most important domestic programs such as education and infrastructure development, as we continue to make annual interest payments of nearly $500 billion. We cannot afford to service this bloated debt at the expense of neglecting the nation’s most important needs. We don’t lack for ideas such as the Simpson-Bowles Commission and it is ironic indeed that those who appointed it did not find it politically palatable to accept their recommendations.
I was pleased when our elected leaders in Washington announced they had reached a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff at the 11th hour, but as they say, “the devil is in the details.”
When I began to read through the specifics of the agreement that averted the cliff, I was truly disappointed. We knew the fiscal cliff was coming for more than a year and still were not able to address the root causes of the debt. The deal did generate over $600 billion in new revenue relative to current policy, and it did manage to save – at least for the time being – over 78,000 thousand jobs for Pennsylvanians. But the deal did not include a substantive agreement that bends down the trajectory of our debt.
Each side is firmly entrenched in its respective position and seemingly unwilling to give an inch on any of the policies and programs that are important to them. Republicans refuse to acquiesce on more revenue and Democrats avoid discussing spending cuts. Tax policy reform, which both parties claim to favor, is discussed but is not given sustained attention.
This is a truly dangerous stalemate given the rapidly approaching deadlines for the debt ceiling (mid-February or early March), the budget sequester (March 1), and the expiration of the Continuing Resolution – the legislation that allows our government to function (March 27). Each of these fiscal events represents an opportunity while also acting as a deadline. They each offer a chance for lawmakers to examine ways we can rein in wasteful spending. They also provide a forum for discussions on how we can reform entitlements so that they’re effective for those that need them most, and measures we can take to reform our tax code to make it more globally competitive while raising additional revenue for the government. This sort of robust approach is the only way to properly tackle our debt problem, thereby ensuring a prosperous future for Pennsylvanians and the entire nation.
I am encouraged by the fact that there are people out there focused on ensuring lawmakers are engaging in thoughtful, substantive negotiations focused on bending down the trajectory of the debt. One such group is the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a nonpartisan group dedicated to placing America on a more responsible fiscal course. The campaign has assembled a diverse array of business and policy experts, former members of Congress, and over 340,000 concerned citizens. I would encourage you to visit FixTheDebt.org to learn more about this effort and sign the Campaign’s Citizen’s Petition.
The coming weeks and months will be critical for our state and the country. We have the chance to make great strides towards restoring order to our fiscal house. Let’s seize this opportunity – let’s fix the debt!
(Earl Baker is a former Chester County commissioner, senator in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and was also a Republican state chairman. Prior to his public service he was a political science professor at Temple Univesity. Now a consultant, he is a member of the Pennsylvania Steering Committee for Fix the Debt.)