Debt Projection Leaves Congress With Tough Choices
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
I'm Melissa Block.
BLOCK: Either make some politically painful decisions to keep those predictions from coming true, or they can risk a major debt crisis that could have painful consequences around the world. At a Senate Budget Committee hearing today on the new CBO report, the desire to do something was more evident than the path for getting it done.
NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: It was not a pretty picture that CBO director Douglas Elmendorf painted as he sat before the budget committee. This year's deficit, he said, will be nearly one and a half trillion dollars, nominally the largest in history. And if the tax breaks that got extended this year continue throughout the next decade, Elmendorf said the nation's debt would grow to be the size of its economy, something that hasn't happened since the end of World War II. The time to do something about it, he told the grim-faced panel of senators, is now.
NORRIS: The longer the necessary adjustments are delayed, the greater will be the negative consequences of the mounting debt, the more uncertain individuals and businesses will be about the future government policies, and the more drastic the ultimate policy changes will need to be.
WELNA: Texas Republican John Cornyn said dealing with the debt is not something Congress does well.
NORRIS: I feel like Mark Twain when he said everyone talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.
WELNA: Kent Conrad, the budget committee's Democratic chairman, said this is not something Congress alone can resolve.
NORRIS: The thing that makes the most sense is there is a summit between the White House, leaders in the House and the Senate, because at the end of the day, the White House has got to be at the table. And unfortunately, the budget process, the president is left out.
WELNA: That's because the budget Congress approves each year is never sent to the president for his signature or veto. Republicans on the panel agreed that the president should be involved. Nevada's John Ensign said President Obama has the bully pulpit senators don't have.
NORRIS: If the president would lead, join the two parties together, we could do actually what's right for the American people.
WELNA: But Republicans also cast doubt on the president's resolve to slow the ballooning debt. Alabama's Jeff Sessions said Mr. Obama squandered an opportunity to make a case for really reining in the debt in this week's State of the Union Address.
NORRIS: To hear the president's remarks, one would think his speech had been written 10 years ago. They were disconnected from the reality of the debt crisis that we face.
WELNA: Republicans generally see spending cuts as the way to cut deficits. A rare exception was Idaho's Mike Crapo.
NORRIS: I personally very strongly believe that all aspects of the spending and revenue side of the equation must be on the table.
WELNA: The revenue side of the equation, of course, is taxes and raising them has been a taboo topic for most in the GOP. But the likely need for more revenues was underscored toward the end of today's hearing when chairman Conrad noted that the Social Security surplus that lawmakers have been raiding for years disappeared this year and instead, Social Security has started cashing in its IOUs with the Treasury.
NORRIS: So, the budget problem that presents us with, instead of having several hundred billion dollars a year coming in from Social Security that we could send somewhere else, those days are over. Those days are over.
WELNA: CBO director Elmendorf agreed. From now on, he said, Social Security will be another factor adding to the debt.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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