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The United States recently recorded a budget deficit of $439 billion for fiscal 2015, well below those of recent years as the nation continued to recover from a deep recession. But even smaller deficits add to the growing national debt of about $18.5 trillion.

To avoid the embarrassment of having to again raise the federal debt limit, Congress just passed legislation to suspend the limit until early 2017.

In addition, the Congressional Budget Office projects annual budget deficits will soon begin to rise again. Without a change in course, over the next decade this could add a total of $8.7 trillion to the federal debt. Interest costs on the debt are set to become the fastest-growing part of the federal budget.

The nation is clearly on an unsustainable path. We are working to raise public awareness of the fiscal challenges ahead and to press the 2016 presidential candidates on how they plan to meet these challenges.

Iowa residents have unprecedented access to the candidates, and the debt should be a primary issue on which we evaluate them before the February caucuses.

How did the fiscal house get so out of order? The financial crisis, recession and slow recovery all contributed. But the fundamental problem -- predating the recession -- is a structural mismatch between government revenue and government spending.

A significant portion of this mismatch relates to the aging of the population and the retirement of the large baby boom generation. This means government spending must rise just to provide the same level of benefits for more retirees. In addition, Medicare and Social Security rely on payroll taxes from workers each year, but the ratio of workers to retirees is falling.

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Another fundamental problem: The income tax code is filled with special provisions that function much like spending programs and drain about $1 trillion a year from federal revenue.

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When will we hear the candidates from both parties talk in earnest about these challenges? When will we hear them make clear dealing with the debt is a high priority for them?

When will they discuss finding reasonable ways to pay for any new programs or tax cuts? When will they talk about how wise use of resources means the government will have the ability to invest in such important areas as education, better health care and public safety?

Both parties share responsibility for the problems we face and both should be held responsible for providing practical solutions that can be passed with bipartisan support. So we need to hold candidates from both parties accountable on these issues, at campaign rallies, debate stages and every coffee house or university they visit.

Given our unique and important role in presidential politics, Iowans deserve to know what would be in each candidate’s first budget.

We should support the candidate who is willing to take the bipartisan steps necessary to correct the nation’s fiscal course and do what’s right for the country now and for future generations.

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