A while back, David Walker, the nation’s leading deficit hawk, was on a cruise with his wife through Antarctica, where “I saw a lifetime of penguins and icebergs.” On the hunt for new ways to explain the impending deficit disaster to Americans in his 2010 book Comeback America, he seized on the icebergs as symbolic of the fiscal dangers Congress and the White House were ignoring below calm seas. “People,” he recalls, were “focusing on the short-term deficits and current debt, which is like the ice that you can see above the waterline, but the real problem is the ice that’s below the waterline.” Since then, the waters have turned choppy, too. “Washington,” he argues now, “is largely arguing about the bar tab on the Titanic while the ship is headed for an iceberg.”
This policy captain does not want to go down with the ship. In fact, as Congress and President Obama toss around the 2011 and 2012 budgets and the dire need to boost the debt limit past $14 trillion like just-boiled lobsters, the former U.S. comptroller general and founder of the Comeback America Initiative is shopping a plan to steer the nation away from danger, and it's gaining fans on Capitol Hill.
Walker's basic idea: Obama and the GOP should agree to reduced 2011 and 2012 budgets, then use the legislation raising the debt ceiling to enact sweeping and long-term spending, tax, and entitlement reforms that trigger in 2013, after the next presidential election. His boldest idea: Set a cap on what the annual federal debt can be, as a percentage of gross domestic product. If it's more in any year, cut or freeze spending, find new ways to increase revenue, do whatever it takes to get it into line. And along the way, slash the corporate income tax. The idea is to bring back the tough budget controls. [Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons about the federal budget and deficit.]
Despite panicky lawmakers worried about how spending cuts and taxes will hurt their re-election chances, Walker says his trips to 47 states tell him the nation is aware of the looming fiscal disaster. They can handle the truth. They know we are living beyond our means, he says. In fact, he gets some of the credit for whipping the public into a frenzy over spending and debt, starting a Fiscal Wake-Up Tour back in 2005 as head of the Government Accountability Office and never letting up. There's a lot more conversation today in Washington about deficits, debt, and spending than there ever was when I was at GAO,” he says.
And while fighting a prolonged policy war might make others crazy, Walker is upbeat. Plus, he jokes, I've already lost most of my hair anyway.
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.