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Will We Defuse Our Debt Bomb?

Will We Defuse Our Debt Bomb?

By Senator Tom Coburn - April 17, 2012

(Note: the following op-ed is excerpted and adapted from Senator Coburn’s new book, The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting America.)

The big question facing America now, and in the foreseeable future, is not who is going to win the next election but whether we are going to defuse a debt bomb that has put our very survival at risk.

Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was not exaggerating when he called our debt the greatest threat to our national security. History has shown time and time again that debt can bring nations to their knees. Great powers such as Britain, Spain, France, the Ottomans, the Soviet Union, and the Roman Empire declined economically before they contracted, collapsed, or were conquered. Our founders understood this history very well: John Adams warned, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

History also shows that for great nations, the end can come quickly. Those who think we have years to debate these issues are courting disaster. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson asks, “What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night? Great powers and empires are complex systems, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid . . . including the tendency to move from stability to instability quite suddenly.”

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is downplaying this threat. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said on Meet the Press on Sunday that there is “no evidence” our debt load is hurting our economy. He’s wrong. There is centuries of evidence illustrating the dangers of high debt loads. In their landmark book, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff estimate that GDP growth slows considerably when advanced economies like ours reach a debt-to-GDP ratio of 90 percent. Their estimate is being tested in real time and has been shown to be correct. Our debt now exceeds the size of our entire economy and is presently creating a major drag on our economy. Geithner also ignored the fact that we have already received a credit downgrade because of our refusal to reduce our long-term debt.

Regrettably, Washington has not yet given the American people the adult conversation about these challenges they deserve. Both sides are at fault. Instead of pursuing a deficit-reduction agreement, the administration has invested an enormous amount of energy in rehashing the same politically-expedient, class-warfare arguments that tend to dominate every election cycle. They argue Republicans want to defend tax cuts for the rich and dismantle entitlement programs for the poor.

This is disappointing because the facts show that instead of being the “Party of No,” Republicans have been the Party of Accommodation when it comes to considering additional revenue in exchange for real spending cuts and entitlement reform. Consider the evidence. I received the highest score in Congress from the National Taxpayers Union this year but supported the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan along with Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) that included a dollar of revenue for every three dollars of spending cuts. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OHJ) put $800 billion in revenue on the table in talks with the White House last July. U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), another free-market conservative, put revenue on the table during the super committee talks. Last year I forced a vote to end the ethanol tax earmark and an overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for my amendment even though some so-called conservative groups mistakenly called it a tax increase.

The problem has not been Republican intransigence. The greater obstacle to reform has been the administration’s refusal to back entitlement reform. Party operatives on the left apparently believe fixing entitlements will deprive them of their chance to run 30-second ads attacking House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to save Medicare.

Republicans, of course, have hardly been blameless. It is true that we squandered our opportunity to fix the country’s economic problems when we were in charge. The problem, though, was not our economic policies, but the failure to implement our policies. Politics trumped principle. We grew government instead of shrinking government, and we embarked on an orgy of pork-barrel spending in every area of government, including inside the tax code.

Still, from my vantage point, having spent hundreds of hours with people who have a sacred responsibility to solve this problem – from the president to congressional leaders – I believe a consensus for a solution already exists in the country and in Washington. In spite of all of the political theater and posturing Americans see in our nation’s capital, both sides are at least privately in agreement about the magnitude of the fiscal challenges we face and are not as far apart as it seems in terms of a solution.

The question comes down to one of political will and courage. Will we be career politicians, or will we be statesmen? 

Dr. Tom Coburn is a Republican Senator from Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter @TomCoburn.

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