Up Front

Terrific Report; Reluctant Politicians

Ron Haskins

A group of Brookings scholars, often joined by scholars from other think tanks representing diverse political perspectives, have been sounding the alarm about the cancerous federal deficit for nearly a decade. We have published three books, the first in 2004 before most Americans could spell “deficit,” and many essays and editorials. As early as the 2004 volume, our scholars laid out several specific plans for reaching a zero deficit within a decade.

In a 2008 volume, edited by Alice Rivlin of Brookings and Joe Antos of AEI, a widely respected conservative think tank, we offered a host of ideas for controlling health care spending, including Medicare and Medicaid, the programs with the most explosive growth.

In a 2008 paper, signed by a coalition of respected budget experts including three former heads of the Congressional Budget Office and organized by senior scholars from Brookings and Heritage, another widely respected conservative think tank, we laid out a radical plan for putting entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare, on a budget and taking strong corrective actions if entitlement spending did not conform to the budget limits.

These efforts have added to a growing list of specific suggestions and full-blown plans designed to reduce the federal deficit by various individuals, groups of scholars and budget experts, think tanks, and commissions. The response from policymakers so far? Zilch.

In the past two weeks, however, the deficit deep freeze may have thawed just a little as several plans have been offered by distinguished groups of Americans who know a lot about budgets and deficits, none more so than the plan laid out by the co-chairs of the President’s deficit commission, former Republican senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff for President Clinton. So widely reported has this plan been that it would be difficult to live anywhere in America and fail to hear, see, or read about the plan and the disastrous budget situation it is intended to address. Perhaps Americans are just beginning to get a deeper understanding of a very deep hole.

Here’s the big question now: After a host of unelected experts and former government officials have been sounding the alarm and issuing specific proposals for many years to close the deficit gap, are politicians ready to act? So far at the federal level, elected officials have done no more than claim that they are ready to do something, mostly by shouting that the jokers in the other party are the cause of the problem. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and luckily the incoming chair of the House Budget Committee, is virtually the only politician in Washington to actually come up with a plan for substantially reducing the deficit. But there is nothing that even pretends to be the “Republican Plan” or the “Democratic Plan,” or the “President’s Plan.”

Why is it that scores if not hundreds of scholars, budget experts, and former officials have been diagnosing the deficit problem and proposing solutions while the political system has remained all but inert?

This failure of our political system and of individual politicians can have only one explanation: they are afraid of voters. In the end, it is the American people who are the true cause of the problem. They want their government to serve them in every imaginable way. Worse, they don’t want to pay for it. Nope. They are happy to let their children and grandchildren pick up the tab. With lame politicians and a greedy public watching the deficit grow completely out of control without taking action, a devastating insight emerges: only when the nation has suffered a major crisis that will impose a decade or more of misery on millions of Americans will the public actually support serious action. By then incalculable damage will have been done to our economy, our political system, and future generations of Americans. The Titanic is approaching the iceberg and despite all the yelling, no one has even started to turn the rudder.

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