David Walker| GAO former – Comptroller
THE ISSUE: Brother, can you spare 530 trillion dimes to bail out the federal government?
That’s the federal government’s total liabilities and unfunded commitments, from Medicare, to Social Security, to public debt on pensions. That’s according to David Walker, the now former U.S. comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office.
It is almost impossible to wrap your mind around a number followed by 12 zeroes. Put another way, $53 trillion translates into a de facto mortgage of $455,000 for every American household, but there’s no house backing the mortgage.
Left unchecked, that $53 trillion will grow by $2 trillion to $3 trillion every year and burden our children and their children after them, but it could be even worse than that. Within the next five years, if nothing is done, this country faces a serious economic catastrophe because it is addicted to debt.
Walker for the past two years has been the canary in the federal budget coal mine, traveling the country with his dire message about the state of the federal government’s finances. He has made speeches in 25 states, often with fellow canaries from the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation public-policy groups in what they bill the Fiscal Wake-up Tour.
If that sounds like something which would put you to sleep, you haven’t heard Walker make his plea for fiscal sanity. Yes, his numbers are depressing. But Walker says there is a way out of the madness – if our leaders will lead.
There’s not a lot of evidence they are ready to do that. In 2003, Congress approved a prescription drug benefit for Medicare. It alone represents about $8 trillion of Medicare’s $34 trillion gap, Walker says.
The federal government is ignoring the first rule of holes on its fiscal affairs, he says. That is, when you’re in a hole, stop digging.
Many federal officials, though, have shovels in hand, wanting to add or expand entitlement programs, and ignoring the growing fiscal crisis.
The GAO has been working with members of both political parties to draft a Transparency and Accountability Act that would require greater transparency on the long-term costs of major legislation before it becomes law. Walker proposes something even more dramatic: an independent commission that would make hard budget choices and propose solutions. Much like the base realignment commission that propose closing military bases, the commission Walker envisions would present its plan to Congress, which could only vote it up or down.
More immediately, Walker is working to make the looming fiscal crisis a campaign issue in the presidential election. We wish him luck on that, because presidential candidates generally aren’t programmed to talk about grim forecasts and tough choices ahead.
Walker is an unusual official for Washington, D.C. He dares to tell the truth about the country’s fiscal health – or lack thereof. The presidential candidates, and voters, need to take his message very seriously.