Washington experts disagree on whether Americans recognize long-term fiscal problem

Jon Ward Contributor
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It’s an established fact that Washington is divided on how to deal with America’s fiscal crisis. But on Tuesday, experts who were convened to discuss the problem invented a new way to squabble about the issue, disagreeing on whether the American people even know there is a serious problem in the first place.

“The American people aren’t hearing a thing about the kind of dramatic changes that are necessary. They certainly didn’t hear it in the president’s budget,” said Rudolph Penner of the Urban Institute.

“I think we ought to scare them to death,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as Sen. John McCain’s top economic adviser during the presidential campaign.

“There are too many Americans who think if we just cut our foreign aid the budget balances,” Holtz-Eakin said. “You have to say one thing very clearly 100 times a day to penetrate the public consciousness. So I am in favor of taking the gloves off and leveling with the American people.”

All panelists agreed that the U.S. is going broke, in large part due to growing entitlement spending that must be structurally altered, and that the consequences will be dire if nothing is done.

Robert Reischauer, a former Congressional Budget Office director who now heads the Urban Institute, said the U.S. is heading for a future as a “fiscal slave” to creditor nations such as China.

John Podesta, who served as President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff and now runs the Center for American Progress, said the escalating costs of health care are going to “bankrupt the country.”

Social Security benefits, at the current rate, will be slashed 27 percent in 2037 when the program’s trust fund goes bankrupt, Reischaeuer said.

Holtz-Eakin said that “the educational aspect of this is imperative.”

“Nothing happens,” he said, until the electorate is educated enough to thank their members of Congress “when they make a hard decision to cut spending, raise taxes, or both.”

One questioner even raised the prospect of sending letters to Medicare recipients warning them of future declines in their benefits if nothing is done.

Immediately following the panel, former Comptroller General David M. Walker, now president and chief executive of the Peterson Foundation, strode to the lectern and gave a 20-minute speech, ringing the alarm bell on the nation’s impending crisis, as he has been doing for years.

“Nobody’s going to bail out America. We have to make tough choices,” he said.

“The good news is the American people get it.”

A Daily Caller reporter asked Walker during a question-and-answer session to comment on why the panelists before him had said that the American people do not, in fact, get it.

Walker cited his travel to 46 states in the last four years as part of the “Fiscal Wakeup Tour” he launched when he was still in the government, as well as the polling that Peterson has done to gauge public attitudes on the subject of the country’s debts and deficit.

“I think I’m a little closer to where the American people are,” Walker said, adding that the disagreement in the country is over how to fix the problem.

Washington last month reached a new low in the eyes of many, when the Senate failed to pass a bill that would have created a nonpartisan commission to make recommendations on how to fix the structural problems with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as recommend tax reforms and budget fixes.

Obama has said he will create a commission by executive order, but such a panel would not have the same power to force a vote in Congress that a body created by legislative mandate would.

Walker said he favored a congressionally created commission over one created by executive order, but said that any panel is better than no panel.