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Politico - Dealing with Debt Shouldn't be a "Game of Chicken'

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By Representative James Lankford

Last January, as a freshman member of the House Budget Committee, I sat at my desk one night trying to get my head around more than $14 trillion in federal debt, which has since ballooned to more than $15 trillion.

I had recently read about the milestones of the Voyager II spacecraft, which, after launching in 1977 to take pictures of the planets, has now left our solar system but continues to send back information. As I read the story, I wondered: "If Voyager II had dropped a dollar every mile on its journey, how long would it take to drop over $14 trillion?" So I found a calculator with a lot of zeroes and discovered Voyager II must continue to fly another 41,801 years to travel over 14 trillion miles. It took 34 years to leave the solar system, but the spacecraft would still have to fly almost 42,000 more years to equal our national debt at the start of 2011.

I'm overwhelmed by the reality that many in Washington seem to be consumed with discussing our debt, but few will actually propose a solution.

Four months ago, the Budget Committee heard the chief Medicare actuary testify that the entitlement program would be insolvent within the decade. All of our military spending and every nonentitlement agency outlay is debt spending. During 2011, countless individuals testified before the Budget Committee that the current path of deficits and debt is "unsustainable." That means there'll be a time when the American people will no longer have enough national credit to pay for our self-imposed debt load.

Soon we'll reach a point where we can no longer sell our debt at a rate we can afford. At the moment when "unsustainable" hits home, without strategic planning or mercy, we'll be required to immediately cut spending or dramatically raise taxes to solve a problem we all knew was coming. As many have already said, the debt crisis is the most predictable crisis in history.

It's very difficult to find the real number for anything in Washington. Each statistic has its own version, and every figure has its counter figure. But we can all agree there has been a dramatic increase in federal spending and the size of federal deficits in the past three years. Since 2008, deficit spending has increased from $400 billion a year to well more than $1 trillion a year. The House-passed Path to Prosperity legislation, which would have cut $5.8 trillion over the next 10 years, was considered too drastic. So the Senate rejected it.

Even the low threshold of cutting $1.2 trillion over 10 years was considered too drastic by Democrats on the failed deficit-reduction supercommittee. It's a sad day when Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on even 20 percent of the possible cuts to begin the process of avoiding future austerity measures.

The freshman class of 2010 was elected with a mandate to bring down our debt, but the administration was determined to keep the deficit-hawk freshmen from reducing spending at all to gain a political "win." It's a frightening political game of chicken that has miserable and chilling consequences for the nation's long-term future.

Last year, we had seven near government shutdowns, which left the nation frustrated and eager to resolve the budget process.

In the first two months of this year, the Budget Committee will put nine structural reforms on the table. The 1974 Budget Act is essentially dead since the Senate has not crafted a budget for nearly 1,000 days.

One of the long overdue reforms is the Government Shutdown Prevention Act, which automatically would kick in a continuing spending resolution with 1 percent across-the-board cuts every three months until a budget is approved by the House and Senate.

I introduced this bill as a simple solution that changes the default from financial delays to financial determination. When Congress fails to act, it should not punish every agency and the national economy with uncertainty.

I would not ask anyone to surrender their core philosophical commitments for the sake of cooperation, though I wonder whether we'll ever agree in public the way we often agree in private. Both sides know that entitlement programs must be reformed because our spending is unsustainable. Additionally, we agree the amount of taxation required to completely pay for all the current government programs would kill the economy.

If we all know the issues and numbers, what's stopping us from fixing the problem before it's too late? Will we start pointing fingers at each other as Rome burns?


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