‘The Debt Bomb’: A page-turner about the federal budget

David Fontaine Mitchell Commentator and Author
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If you’re concerned about our nation’s growing fiscal crisis — and regardless of political persuasion, you should be — then Senator Tom Coburn’s new book, The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting America, should be the next title you pick up. Coburn identifies the root of the current problem, exposes the devastating effects of staying the course and provides detailed solutions for getting the nation back on track. Pulling no punches, the senator goes after both Republicans and Democrats who are content with serving their own self-interests while ignoring the greater economic situation.

Senator Coburn has long been a deficit hawk intent on exposing waste, fraud and abuse within the federal government. I was first introduced to his work last year, when he published a report entitled “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope.” The report came at a time when President Obama’s proposed budget would have increased NSF funding by $1 billion. The senator’s analysis revealed, among other frivolous expenditures, million-dollar grants to the Rochester Institute of Technology, Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study how rumors get started and $559,681 to the College of Charleston to observe how long a shrimp can run on a treadmill. Coburn goes a step further in his latest writing to expose the reasons and motivations behind government waste.

The Debt Bomb opens with a fictitious future scenario, where multiple private and global firms begin dumping their U.S. debt holdings after the federal government fails to pass legislation to get the nation’s spending under control. Overnight, the dollar takes a nosedive, and the price of oil subsequently spikes. Civil unrest takes the country by storm, and people withdrawal their money from banks. The G-20 convenes and issues the U.S. an ultimatum: raise the retirement age for entitlement programs to 72, means-test benefits and double tax rates for the privilege of borrowing money. The president agrees to the terms via executive order, but Congress passes a resolution in disapproval. The nation is in chaos.

Coburn captivates the reader through this devastating series of events, and urges a call to action: We must prevent a scenario like this from occurring. What may come as a surprise is that he also surmises this fictional chain of events will occur with Republican control of the White House, Senate and House — the author’s own party. By writing this, the senator is suggesting that unless things change in Washington, the country is going to continue down the road of fiscal disaster regardless of which party is behind the wheel.

I find Coburn’s willingness to take on both sides of the aisle refreshing and attribute it, in part, to his life’s work as a physician. He has voluntarily limited his time in public office, choosing to act on his belief that politicians shouldn’t make a career out of serving in Washington (this is his second and final term in the Senate). He points out that many members of Congress have noble intentions but no real-world experience. If we are to change our current course, he claims, we must elect representatives with private-sector knowledge who will direct their efforts toward solving the nation’s problems, not extending their political careers. For this reason, he has called on constituents to term-limit their representatives.

Coburn dedicates a large portion of his book to identifying the source of our debt problem — entitlement expenditures — and explaining how the nation got so far off track. He warns that by 2022 taxes will merely cover the cost of Social Security, Medicare and the interest payments on the national debt. In other words, the country will have no money left to cover any other governmental functions. The fact that foreigners hold approximately one-third of our debt makes the situation particularly precarious.

The senator brushes aside the simplistic notion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Bush tax cuts are the driving forces behind our debt. As he explains, the average annual cost of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of those wars was $123 billion, while the cost of fraud alone in Medicare is $100 billion each year. The Bush tax cuts are projected to “cost” $3.5 trillion over the next decade, but entitlements will cost $23 trillion over the same time period. This is not to say these costs shouldn’t be offset with cuts to other programs, but to ignore the driving force behind our nation’s massive expenditures — namely, entitlements — and simply blame tax cuts or military engagements would be misguided. It should be noted that Coburn voted against extending the Bush tax cuts because of Congress’s unwillingness to offset the cost with spending cuts.

Throughout the book, Coburn repeatedly references two major obstacles that stand in the way of solving our nation’s debt crisis: careerism and parochialism, which he defines as “the philosophy of governing to win the next election above all else” and “making decisions based on what will benefit a politician’s state or district,” respectively. By not just exposing waste, fraud and abuse but explaining the reason and motivation behind it, Coburn strengthens his argument for limited government. He reveals that careerism and parochialism come well before ideology in the minds of politicians serving in Washington. Although representatives may have noble intentions when they first arrive in D.C., they ultimately end up ignoring difficult tasks in order to safeguard their careers. Politicians continually reference abstract future dates to tackle the tough issues — if only they can get through this election or win a few more seats for their party, all will be solved. However, the ideal time never seems to arise. Instead, both Republicans and Democrats continue to kick the can further down the road, afraid to make the tough decisions today that could make them political targets tomorrow. As a result, the nation has been saddled with a ballooning $15 trillion national debt that doesn’t show the slightest sign of being deflated anytime soon.

Coburn sheds light on many of Washington’s faults that often go unnoticed by the public, which is particularly insightful. One of the most shocking disclosures is the “walking-around money” senators receive, an allowance of sorts guised under the intentionally misleading idiom “high-priority project allocation.” The amount totals $45 million annually and is essentially used to extend the careers of politicians by allowing them to allocate the funds toward their states’ “infrastructure needs.” In addition to exposing this abuse of the system, Coburn details the shady tactics of “phone-marking,” “hotlines” and other schemes politicians use to avoid public scrutiny.

Coburn identifies massive amounts of duplication in the government and reveals that even the Government Accountability Office (GAO) couldn’t tell him how many programs were in its agency when asked. The senator identified at least $100 billion of waste and duplication in the annual budget — and he only analyzed one-third of the federal government. He explains that duplication is rampant because politicians often push for new programs that provide the same services as existing programs so that they can claim that they’re addressing a problem. Unfortunately, this is much easier and more popular than evaluating the effectiveness of existing programs that may or may not be working.

As a lifelong physician, Coburn has a lot of insightful commentary on the effect of government-sponsored health care initiatives. He scrutinizes Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare in great detail, providing a prospective from a professional who spent his career in the field. He goes through the history of these programs and their subsequent adverse effects on medicine. He explains that our nation’s health care operating system is based on a design established after the Second World War, when Congress authorized the “employer-based” health care system. Coburn argues that we should shift buying power back to individuals and provides several detailed plans on how to evolve and update our current system.

He stresses that abuse is widespread and that individuals are beginning to take advantage of the system. For example, the number of Americans claiming disability benefits increased at more than five times the rate of population growth between 2000 and 2010, while fees to lawyers representing disability-benefit applicants increased by 300% over the same period. Staggering facts like these are provided throughout Coburn’s book.

The senator also goes after defense spending, considered one of the right’s sacred cows. Coburn reveals the tactic of “spreading contracts” — whereby defense contractors spread out a project (such as the F/A-22 fighter) over 40 states, which, because of parochialism, virtually guarantees congressional support. Coburn leaves no stone unturned in his quest to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse across all areas of government.

Senator Coburn’s book reads more like a novel than a typical report on budgetary matters, which came as a pleasant surprise. Let’s be honest, most reports on fiscal and monetary policy are pretty stale, overloaded with mind-numbing charts and figures that make the analysis of the author’s work more akin to a school assignment you would be tasked with than something you would read recreationally. Coburn manages to tell a captivating story, while at the same time conveying the important facts and figures synonymous with a policy briefing or white paper. From his public battles with the late Senator Ted Stevens and Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, to his behind-the-scenes work with other members of Congress, the senator gives the reader insight into the workings of Washington in a way that unexpectedly turns a book on economics into a fascinating page-turner I found difficult to put down.

Coburn confronts our nation’s growing fiscal crisis as a doctor would treat a sick patient. He identifies the illness and then provides a detailed treatment plan to eradicate it. However, government doesn’t seem to want to take the medicine.

The senator presents excellent ideas in great detail, but he struggles with messaging and fails to offer realistic suggestions for how his ideas could be implemented. He attempts to pay lip service to the effectiveness of the Senate by identifying diligent individuals working tirelessly on a “compromise” behind closed doors, but the truth is that they haven’t even passed a budget resolution in 1,094 days. Even if the GOP somehow manages to run the table this November, does anybody truly believe that the Romney, McConnell and Boehner triumvirate will be able to rein in the amount of spending necessary to pull us back from the brink? If I had to place a bet, I’d bet on the fictitious scenario presented at the start of The Debt Bomb playing out before I’d bet that Congress will start running the surpluses necessary to begin paying down our debt. As the senator succinctly puts it, “We have a surplus of solutions, but a deficit of courage.”

As I mentioned at the start of this review, I was first introduced to Coburn’s work via his report on the National Science Foundation. The results were staggering, and I could hardly believe what I was reading. As I read The Debt Bomb, I realized that Senator Coburn has published numerous other reports similar to “Under the Microscope,” exposing truly outlandish government waste. Why had I not heard of these before? There is no doubt in my mind that popular support would force Congress to take action on these findings, but the public needs to first know they exist. Writing a report is merely phase one, phase two is promoting the findings effectively.

This is what I believe the senator needs to focus on in the future to make his proposals a reality. Rather than championing term limits — a proposition in his book that is unrealistic, as politicians are too egotistical to pass a law limiting their access to power — Coburn should focus his efforts on getting his findings out in the public discourse by all means necessary. If he does, I am convinced that Americans will overwhelmingly support his effort to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse and in turn will put pressure on Congress to implement his ideas. However, there needs to be a strategy to make the findings go viral. The information is there. People simply need to know it exists.

David Fontaine Mitchell is a commentator and author. His book, “Ascension Island and the Second World War,” was published in 2011.