The Political Deadlock over National Debt

It was a familiar punch-counterpunch over the problem of the nation’s rocketing debt. Yet amid the rhetoric, it was easy to overlook a fundamental question:

Why can’t America’s leaders, at the helm of such a wealthy country, find a solution that both puts the nation on a long-term path to financial security and preserves the vast array of vital services government provides?

Obama attempts to strike the balance in the short term, in an approach that largely maintains government as it is today. But he hasn’t presented a plan that would protect future generations from a fast-growing national debt.

Ryan offers a strategy that he says would put an end to the nation’s debt problems. But it comes at a great cost to the types of government programs Americans have come to rely on.
Different priorities

The reason neither man has found the sweet spot — which stabilizes the debt and preserves key programs — has in part to do with political taboos. Obama has yet to put forward a plan that fully addresses the long-term costs of Medicare, a primary driver of the nation’s debt. Medicare’s costs will be pushed higher by waves of retiring workers. Although he wishes to raise taxes on the wealthy, he has pledged to leave people earning less than $250,000 alone, depriving the government of a potential source of substantial revenue.

Ryan, Romney and many Republicans, however, refuse to raise taxes at all. To the contrary, they wish to reduce rates, with wealthy Americans being the biggest beneficiaries of those reductions. Such an approach requires deep cuts to the nation’s safety net.

“The president has to be more realistic about raising taxes more across the board on a broader group of people if he’s going to maintain spending at the levels he’s talking about,” said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. “On the other side, the Republicans are going to have to realize that not increasing taxes requires the very, very large cuts in spending that disproportionately benefits low- and middle-income households.”

The clash of approaches to addressing the national debt will be a central theme in this year’s campaign, and it could come to a head soon after the election, when current law calls for sharp cuts to defense and domestic programs and the expiration of a host of tax cuts that benefit virtually every American. Congressional aides have dubbed the Jan. 1 deadline, “Taxmaggedon.”

An agreement last summer to tame the debt already is slicing nearly $1 trillion from domestic and defense appropriations over the next decade.

To find savings, Ryan’s budget overhauls federal programs in ways that he says will reduce costs significantly. According to the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 62 percent of his budget cuts come from low-income programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. Washington Post