COLLEGE PARK – House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was less celebratory Thursday than he’s been in the nearly two weeks since the passage of historic health care reform, striking a gloomy tone as he spoke about America’s troubled fiscal future.
Addressing a crowd of roughly 100 University of Maryland students, Hoyer issued a somber warning to the younger generation about the looming problems caused by a government that promises more than it can afford.
“This means more to you than it does to me. It means a lot to me. But to you, it is crushing your generation with debt,” Hoyer said. “If we’re not careful, if you have your Iraq and Afghanistan, or your H1N1 or your Katrina, you will have no resources with which to respond.”
Hoyer sat on a panel with four budget experts at a “Fiscal Solutions Forum” hosted by the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and the Concord Coalition, a fiscal-responsibility advocacy group.
The other panelists shared Hoyer’s grim assessment of the nation’s fiscal path and urged the students to demand solutions from Congress.
“It’s not a matter of ideology, it’s a matter of arithmetic,” said Robert Bixby, the Concord Coalition’s executive director.
The federal budget deficit is expected to clock in at $1.35 trillion for fiscal 2010. A Congressional Budget Office report released in early March found that President Obama’s proposed budget would add more than $9.7 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. By the end of 2020, the CBO predicted the debt would grow to $20.3 trillion, or 90 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
“The course we are on leads to debt that exceeds the value of our entire economy. To a government that does nothing but pay for entitlement and pay interest to our creditors. And an end to American leadership in the world,” Hoyer said.
The panelists unanimously agreed that the two biggest drivers of the debt are an aging population and the growing cost of health care. People are living longer and baby boomers are about to retire in droves, which is driving up the costs of Social Security and Medicare. There are more people eligible for government benefits than there are workers to support those programs through tax revenues.
Hoyer defended the recently passed health care bill as a deficit-reducing measure, citing a CBO report that found the legislation would reduce federal deficits by $143 billion over the next decade. He also praised Obama for creating a commission that will take up the debt problem and for his plan to impose a freeze on non-security discretionary spending, which Hoyer admitted was a “mere pittance in the effort to obtain balance.”
While the panelists were more focused on drawing attention to the problem rather than suggesting in-depth solutions, they all agreed that the public has to take an active, mature role in the coming debate about the nation’s finances.
“The problem isn’t simply members of Congress who we all condemn and act as if we’re better than them,” said Andrew Biggs, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The problem lies out with the American people who are not willing to have difficult things told to them.”
Though there were shades of disagreement over the intricacies of how to tackle the problem, Hoyer and the rest of the panelists stressed the importance of finding fiscal solutions that work.
“America is at a critical crossroads,” said David Walker, the former head of the Government Accountability Office and president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. “The decisions that are made or fail to be made over the next three to five years will largely determine whether our best years are behind us or whether they’re ahead of us.”