December 1, 2013

Washington Scene: Reality Check, Please

By Warren Belmar

As I write this column, Election Day is a week away, Hurricane Sandy has devastated large parts of the Northeast, and the critical legislative issues that have to be addressed before the end of the year have been left for action in a lame duck session of Congress. As you read this column, the elections and lame duck session will be behind us, and the stage will have been set for our newly elected president and Congress to identify, prioritize, and then address the domestic and international challenges facing the nation. The question of the day will be whether they are up to the task or whether gridlock and inaction will continue to leave us at the mercy of events beyond our control.

Regrettably, many of the domestic issues we are facing today have been exacerbated by years of inaction and a proclivity for kicking the can down the road without concern for the rapidly approaching cliff. This is especially so with respect to fiscal issues. To date, bipartisan efforts, such as those recommended by the Simpson-Bowles Commission, have proven too controversial for adoption by elected officials primarily focused on their own re-election. Yet, there is uniform agreement that trillion-dollar annual deficits on top of a national debt in excess of $16 trillion cannot be sustained. This is especially so when payment of interest on, and repayment of principal of, the national debt will be the responsibility of future generations already burdened with over $1 trillion of personal student debt, and future deficit expenditures are to be paid for in part by funds collected for, but diverted from, deposit in the indisputably underfunded Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid trust funds.

If partisan and bipartisan proposals continue to prove unacceptable to our elected officials, it falls to our nation’s leading think tanks to help by working together to craft nonpartisan compromises. Organizations such as The Brookings Institution, The American Enterprise Institute, and many others are populated by respected academics and public policy and business leaders, and they have the resources and the temperament needed to do what our elected officials have proven incapable of doing— realistically assess our resources and realistically prioritize in a draft budget how those resources are expended. Such an effort holds out a better likelihood of crafting viable solutions than another joint Congressional committee.

It is a truism that reality is the leading cause of stress, but only for those who are in touch with it. Now is the time for our elected officials to acknowledge the stress they are under and show that they are indeed in touch with reality by addressing our fiscal and economic challenges.

Warren Belmar (wbelmar@att.net) serves as managing director of Capitol Counsel Group, a firm whose primary mission is to help clients navigate the complex world of today’s regulatory environment.