Debt is a big deal, and that's what's needed

  • Article by: RUDY BOSCHWITZ, TIM PENNY and MARTIN OLAV SABO
  • Updated: January 14, 2013 - 6:48 PM

"Fix the Debt" has a message: Small tweaks won't clean up our fiscal mess.

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The bar we all have for Congress may be low, but Minnesotans can be glad that this time at least our leaders in Washington cleared it -- though just barely.

The deal Congress and the president agreed to earlier this month prevented us from tumbling off the "fiscal cliff," managed to avert middle-class income tax hikes -- though every working American has probably already noted that Social Security taxes have risen to their normal level -- and delayed the nearly across-the-board spending cuts that would have been detrimental to working families and small businesses across Minnesota and around the nation.

However, the agreement leaves a lot to be desired.

As backers of the national, bipartisan Campaign to Fix the Debt -- whose Minnesota chapter will be launched today -- the three of us are determined to remain engaged on this issue, until it is resolved.

The first problem with this month's agreement is that it didn't even fix our short-term problems. The military and domestic spending cuts, or "sequestration" in Washington parlance, were merely delayed, not canceled, meaning we'll probably watch our elected leaders go through a last-minute dance again to figure out how to avoid blunt cuts to popular programs.

More damning, however, is that the deal did absolutely nothing to alter the unsustainable long-term trajectory of our national debt.

The cliff's sequestration policies, still looming in a matter weeks, would be quite damaging for Minnesotans if they ever see the light of day. According to a recent Pew study, the federal grants subject to the ax represent 5 percent of annual state revenue, money Minnesota has already allocated for spending, including on things like nutrition programs for low-income women and children, education programs, public housing and many other programs that protect the most vulnerable among us. Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office has said that Minnesota could lose up to 16,000 jobs if the cuts occur.

This is not at all to say we shouldn't talk about spending cuts. On the contrary, any deal to dig us out of the hole we're in can't rely on increased revenue alone. It must also include substantial savings from spending programs -- including entitlements, which have long been considered sacrosanct. However, we need to cut with a scalpel rather than an ax, and we must address the true drivers of our perpetual deficits, rather than small programs that are relied upon by the nation's neediest.

For that reason, we remain committed to the idea of a big, comprehensive and bipartisan agreement -- one that saves long-term costs from our entitlement programs in order to both trim budget deficits and make these programs sustainable over the long term. Such an agreement will also need to see an increase in the government's revenues, but through structural reform of the tax code and economic growth.

Our long-term debt isn't going away. The publicly held debt is equal to well over 70 percent of our GDP. Research shows that once a country's debt load surpasses certain levels -- some of which we are quickly approaching -- economic growth begins to sputter. On top of that, massive amounts of debt can heighten interest rates, inflation rates and unemployment. It can also squeeze money from other necessary functions.

Our fiscal path needs a change of direction, and it needs it soon. Legislating small deficit-reduction deals in the face of crisis is not a way to fix our structural, long-term problems.

Instead, what we need is for our leaders in Washington to set aside their sacred cows, their favored constituencies and their short-term political stratagems. We need for them to recommit themselves to the idea that a big, comprehensive agreement is the only way to get ourselves out of the fiscal mess we're in.

We hope that you will consider joining our cause, showing our federal government that Minnesotans are fed up with the status quo. Learn more about how you can get involved at FixTheDebt.org.

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Rudy Boschwitz, a Republican, is a former U.S. senator. Tim Penny is a former Democratic congressman and Independence Party candidate for governor. Martin Olav Sabo, a Democrat, is a former congressman. All are co-chairs of the Minnesota chapter of the Campaign to Fix the Debt.

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