Gloomy forecasts from Washington show that because of a tsunami
wave of entitlement spending starting when the baby boom generation
starts to retire next year, balancing the budget would mean forcing
up taxes to unprecedented levels.
Absent reform, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects
that spending could drive total federal taxes to 30 percent of the
nation's economy by 2045. The historical average, and today's
level, just tops 18 percent. Add in state and local taxes of about
10 percent, and the level will be over 40 percent, or roughly the
same as slow-growth Europe.
Making matters far worse, Congress seems paralyzed in addressing
the explosion of entitlement spending on programs such as Medicare
and Social Security. Few lawmakers -- or presidential candidates --
are even willing to talk about restraining such programs.
Fortunately, some lawmakers are focusing on practical ways to force
serious decisions on the problem. Some support having a bipartisan
commission issue a plan to end ever-rising taxes and spending.
Among these, Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., have
introduced a bold commission bill intended to achieve public
acceptance and bipartisan action.
Wolf and Cooper recognize that today's political deadlock stems
from two things. One is public anxiety about the changes in
retirement programs needed to prevent huge unfunded obligations
being passed on to our children and grandchildren. Today those
obligations are the equivalent of handing every child born in
America a mortgage liability of $170,000. The other reason is that
lawmakers from both parties worry that they will be shortchanged in
any budget deal and then face the wrath of angry constituents.
The Wolf-Cooper bill solves this difficult political equation.
It creates a bipartisan commission designed to address the
unsustainable imbalance between federal commitments and revenues
while increasing national savings and making the budget process
give greater emphasis to the long-term fiscal picture.
Their commission would not craft some backroom deal and foist it
on the American people. Its critical first phase would be a series
of public hearings nationwide to talk honestly about the long-term
fiscal problem and the tough options for fixing it, and to build
public support for a broad plan of action. This means a serious
national conversation about balancing the concerns of the young as
well as the elderly. Armed with that guidance from ordinary
Americans of all ages, the commission would craft detailed
recommendations that would receive "fast-track" consideration by
The Wolf-Cooper commission proposal recognizes that a
combination of political fear and partisan grandstanding is causing
gridlock in Washington -- and if that is not ended the result will
be an economic disaster that nobody wants. But by devising a
bipartisan commission that would draw the public into the
discussion, force Republicans and Democrats to offer serious
proposals and reach agreement, and then limit Congress' ability to
thwart that agreement, these lawmakers have come up with an idea
that really could avoid the calamity ahead.
Stuart Butler is
vice president for domestic affairs at The Heritage Foundation