The trajectory of our federal budget is not just fiscally irresponsible; it is morally bankrupt.
Unless we fix our $17 trillion national debt, young Americans stand to be the first generation in our history who will inherit a country worse off than the one handed to its parents.
Ours will be a country that can neither afford to keep the promises made in the past nor make crucial investments in the future. As a result, millennials will face a future of slow economic growth, fewer jobs, and a lower standard of living.
But this dismal outlook does not have to be our destiny.
The future for the millennial generation can be bright if lawmakers can summon the political courage necessary to put our fiscal house in order, and do it soon.
Leaders in Washington, D.C., must take a generationally balanced approach to reduce the debt as a percentage of our total economy. That means tackling the true drivers of the debt and protecting high-value investments, which will help all Americans.
Unfortunately, recent deficit reduction measures have largely failed to take this approach.
Social insurance programs like Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and other federal pensions, which account for virtually all of the growth in future spending, have largely gone untouched. At the same time, non-defense discretionary spending – a category that includes education, infrastructure and research – has shouldered the majority of the cuts. That funding is projected to reach its lowest level in five decades, relative to the economy.
A sensible path forward should achieve at least an additional $2.4 trillion in further deficit reduction over the next decade in order to put our debt on a downward path, primarily through entitlement reform that slows the growth in spending. It also means Congress should pass comprehensive tax reform measures that encourage economic growth and provide additional revenue for deficit reduction.
Perhaps the first step in making this happen is to increase our understanding of the true size and future impact of our fiscal imbalance.
Congress can do this by passing a proposal that would require the U.S. Congressional Budget Office to produce an annual generational accounting report and request that they use this method to score all pending legislation that significantly adjusts tax or spending policy. We expect to see a bill to this effect introduced in Congress shortly.
A second step is to change the dialogue.
Most of the budget proposals pass our problems to future generations. This is a sad commentary on the state of our politics. All of us should be thinking about how policy changes affect future generations.
To highlight that point, Congress should hear directly from the kids and grandkids they so often talk about by inviting leaders of the next generation to testify on these critical intergenerational issues.
Over the next decade, the U.S. will spend $5.4 trillion on interest payments on the national debt, and $847 billion in 2023 alone, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And that’s with abnormally low interest rates.
Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, that is real money that doesn’t buy us better health care or financial security, stronger economic growth, better education and training, or anything else. It simply transfers tax dollars to those nations and individuals wealthy enough to loan money to the U.S. government.
The fact is, the longer we wait to deal with this problem, the more painful the changes will have to be.
Both parties must realize that, despite their legitimate policy differences, the status quo is the worst option on the table. The responsibility of political leadership demands they find common ground to solve this problem, not kick most of the consequences down the road to the next generation.
As for the two of us – a member of the Middle Tennessee State University chapter of The Can Kicks Back and a former member of Congress who wants to leave a legacy of successful fiscal stewardship for the next generation – we are working to make sure that today’s leaders take seriously the moral implications of their fiscal decisions, as well as ensuring that tomorrow’s leaders weigh in now on issues that will affect them in the decades to come.
We urge you to learn more at www.thecankicksback.org.
Bart Gordon represented Tennessee in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1985 to 2011. Ryan Ward is a sophomore at Middle Tennessee State University and founder of the local chapter of The Can Kicks Back.