Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

The problem is urgent, but the proposed solutions are vague

Posted by David Kassel on August 24, 2007

 The federal government needs to “reinvent” itself, or we’re going to succumb to mounting deficits and costs of entitlement and other programs, the nation’s chief governmental oversight official contends.

Comptroller General David M. Walker, who heads the Government Accountability Office, predicts a grim future if we don’t make some major changes.  In a speech posted this month on the GAO’s website, Walker maintains that:

If we continue as we have, policy makers will eventually have to raise taxes dramatically and/or slash government services the American people depend on and take for granted. Just pick a program–student loans, the interstate highway system, national parks, federal law enforcement, and even our armed
forces.   

Walker maintains that “America is on a path toward an explosion of debt,” and that is happening in the face of increasing problems associated with globalization, ranging from environmental threats to transnational terrorism.

It’s part of a “Fiscal Wake-up Tour” that Walker has engaged in, in conjunction with three ideologically diverse organizations–The Brookings Institution, The Concord Coalition, and The Heritage Foundation.

“We need nothing less than a top-to-bottom review of federal programs,
policies, and operations,” Walker adds.  “Congress and the President need to decide
which of these activities remain priorities, which should be overhauled, and which have simply outlived their usefulness.”

It’s an important warning and prescription, and yet just vague enough that it’s not likely to spur anyone to immediate action.  That is a problem.  When Walker gets specific, it’s in the field he knows best: government auditing.  There is a need, he says, to “go global” in the accounting and auditing procedures of federal agencies and programs.  In a separate slide presentation on the GAO website, Walker suggests, among other things, presenting information on “intergenerational equity” for social insurance programs, such as Medicare and Social Security.

Those are good ideas, not in the sense that they will by themselves help us solve our problems, but in the sense that they will help us see and understand them more clearly.

But it’s when Walker adopts the 30,000-foot perspective, as the Heritage Foundation puts it, that the vagueness sets in.  Entitlement reform is especially urgent, he says:

Unless we reform Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, these programs will eventually crowd out all other federal spending. Otherwise, by 2040 our government could be doing little more than sending out Social Security checks and paying interest on our massive national debt.

 That may be the case, but Walker isn’t wading into the controversy over how we carry out those reforms.  The Heritage Foundation, for instance,  calls for cuts in entitlement programs, and opposes any expansions in them, particularly plans to expand the State Childrens Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which helps states provide health insurance to poor children.

The Brookings Institution, on the other hand, opposes entitlement cuts, arguing instead in favor of such things as increasing the retirement age for Social Security and increasing premiums for Medicare.

Walker does suggest that all sectors of society will have to become involved in seeking solutions.  In the slide presentation, he calls for “good governance, transparency, and accountability” in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.  He suggests, for instance, that more information be presented in the president’s annual budget, including an annual 40-year “fiscal exposure statement.”  The presentation, however, didn’t seem to include similar suggestions for the private and nonprofit sectors.

The Fiscal Wake Up Tour seems like a great idea.  But the price of the ideological diversity of the three organzations that make up the coalition appears to be an unfocused message.

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4 Responses to “The problem is urgent, but the proposed solutions are vague”

  1. A co-worker and myself recently talked about this problem. The United States is so far into debt that everyone in the world owns us. If they were to all demand complete payment on the debts like a regular debt holder does for a default, we’d be screwed. There is entirely too much spending that can be trimmed, mostly through more fiscal responsibility. The welfare system is entirely messed up. It’s too easy for people to just quit their job, produce a kid, and live off of the government. The whole Iraq invasion definitely threw the country well below the red, too. The government keeps focusing on Social Security and Medicare (which Americans invest in) instead of areas that can truely be controlled. It’s a completely sad state that America is in, and it will take a truely great President to fix it (and I highly doubt such a person will ever win the Next American President reality competition).

  2. I agree with you that our growing debt and deficits are going to take true leadership to solve. I was critical in my post of the Comptroller General, by the way, for not being specific about how he would solve these problems; but maybe its more important that he and the partners in the Wake Up Tour are simply bringing needed attention to these problems.

    In my view, welfare is not one of the major expenditures that are driving the budget into the red. In fact, we’ve practically reformed welfare out of existence, haven’t we? I agree with you that Americans do invest, through their taxes, in Social Security and Medicare, but, as Walker points out, fewer workers are going to be paying those taxes as the baby boomers retire in coming years. Social Security and Medicare will face major fiscal strains. Something has to be done. But what? IMHO, a national health care system will ultimately have to be part of the solution. But that’s a subject for another day.

  3. Laurence Schiller said

    The fact of the matter is that it can be done. Clinton produced surpluses and while I understand that more structural change is needed to protect entitlements, what we don’t need is all of these corporate subsidies. Why on earth do we give Exxon-Mobil 65 Billion when they are already commanding record profits? Why do we pay people NOT to grow food when millions starve around the world. Just think of what we could be doing with the money wasted in Iraq. What this would take is a holistic approach – sort of start from scratch – and rebuild our entire way of doing business. But that would expect politicians to actually think, most of whom don’t do much of that these days.

  4. P. Thiel said

    It is overwhelming the deficit this country is going to face. Most americans do not know the reality of government spending. Responsible americans may give thought to donating to the deficit only when doing their federal and/or state income taxes. Any dollar amount would be welcomen. Those who see this as a way out of this hole would comply with this concept. This may be a better idea than raising taxes and a start to the rising cost of government. Not making this mandatory might be more encouraging to americans.

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