For the past few days I have been talking to you about the crisis that threatens to undermine our financial system. The news is so grim, and the predictions so dire, that it makes you want to leave the television set off and avoid the newspapers.
But even once we get past this crisis, as we will, we are still a long way from getting our economic house in order. Our leaders have made promises to the American people that they can’t possibly keep-not without impoverishing our children and grandchildren.
The problem is that we-politicians and those of us who demand they deliver the goods-have lost the political will to make the difficult choices necessary to live within our means. Any attempt to rein in spending brings to mind the old Washington rhyme: “Don’t cut him; don’t cut me; cut that fellow behind the tree.”
It’s easy to see why. While campaigning on a promise to “bring home the bacon” is easy, running on the need to sacrifice is hard. As former Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics are local.” That makes appeals to the common or national good, not good politics.
Yet if we don’t do this, the events of the past few weeks will one day be viewed as the “good old days” by comparison. Think I’m exaggerating? Our government faces future liabilities of at least $53 trillion-that’s trillion with a “T.” This includes entitlements, government pensions, Medicare, and other promises we have made. It’s $175,000 for every man, woman, and child in America.
I’ve reluctantly concluded that the only way to avert disaster is to take the matter out of the hands of the politicians. If they can’t or won’t address the problem, somebody else must.
One idea that greatly impresses me has been put forward by the very able congressman and my friend, Frank Wolf of Virginia. He has proposed the creation of a bi-partisan blue-ribbon commission called SAFE: Securing America’s Future Economy. The SAFE Commission would identify the things we can afford and the things we can’t afford. It would examine entitlements in a way that politicians seeking re-election dare not to.
It would look at ways to strengthen the social safety net and reform the tax code so as to make the “tax system more economically efficient and improve economic growth.”
The SAFE commission would present its proposals to Congress for an up-or-down vote. The only changes permitted would be those that leave the long-term budget impact unchanged.
There’s precedent for this. Remember the base-closing commission that took another necessary but politically impossible task out of Congress’ hands? It worked. And while it represents an admission of failure on the part of our leaders, I don’t see another option. The status quo has brought us to the edge of a cliff.
The SAFE Commission idea was narrowly defeated in the House earlier this year. But as the financial crisis deepens, the time is right to demand that Congress act. Call your Congressman and Senators today. Let them know you that you support the SAFE Commission. Visit our website, BreakPoint.org, for more information.
As it is, the nation’s economy is in for a rough ride. But we may also be in the midst of what is called a “teachable moment.” We ought to take advantage of it and show the world that we have the civic courage to do what is right.