The Hill: The nation’s need for a debt commission

From the day that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was deposed by a little more than a half-dozen House Republicans to when the House was finally able to elect Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), the share of the debt held by the public jumped by $188.5 billion. Twenty-three days is all it took. This is coming off a fiscal year in which the budget deficit was $1.69 trillion, and it’s expected to only get worse the longer Congress waits to address the serious fiscal problems that face America.

The veracity of the debt problem is why Speaker Johnson’s announcement of a debt commission during his inaugural speech as Speaker is a welcome development. As the Speaker said, “We have to get the country back on track. We know this is not going to be an easy task, and tough decisions will have to be made, but the consequences if we don’t act now are unbearable. We have a duty to the American people to explain this to them, so they understand it well. We are going to establish a bipartisan debt commission to begin working on this crisis immediately.”

We need a debt commission. However, we need one that’s going to be set up for success and has the brightest minds in Congress, which is why Speaker Johnson should put Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) on the commission.

Congress does have a spending problem, but too many have focused on the wrong side of spending. Every single cut that has been pushed in recent months focuses on discretionary spending, which comes in at 6.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). That’s slightly higher than the 6 percent of GDP that Congress spent for discretionary outlays in FY 2000. The current projections from the Congressional Budget Office show discretionary spending continuing to fall over the next few decades, dipping as low as 5.4 percent of GDP in FY 2034.

Meanwhile, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are painfully avoiding the significant problems that we face as trust fund programs and net interest payments on the public’s share of the debt skyrocket. The growth of trust fund programs was entirely predictable. An increased number of beneficiaries has put a strain on trust fund programs like Medicare Hospital Insurance and Old-Age and Survivors Insurance. Both of these programs face insolvency in the next decade.

Just as concerning is the rapid growth of the share of the debt held by the public. Believe it or not, it was only 15 years ago when the share of the debt held by the public was just 39.2 percent of GDP. Of course, the reaction in Congress to the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic was to “prime the pump” and spend more money. The obvious result was massive budget deficits and a national debt that’s roughly equivalent to the size of our economy.

One of the few people in Congress who understands the math problem we face as a nation is Schweikert. Nearly every week the House is in session, Schweikert gives a speech to a nearly empty chamber in which he explains what faces America.

In July, Schweikert gave one of these speeches, and he put the situation we face in stark terms.

“You have to understand that this isn’t a game. We are already right now at 100 percent of debt to GDP. The wheels are coming off, and we are going to dink around with little arguments saying, well, I have an idea, we are going to work on it all year, and our big success is that we are going to save half a percent on Medicare spending. We have lost our minds around here with our unwillingness to do the things that are difficult because we have to explain it to a reporter or it will be an attack ad in one of our campaigns,” Schweikert said. “This is the end of your Republic. This basically means you will live in a country with, functionally, no growth and, functionally, every incremental dollar you have is trying to just cover the interest, the borrowing costs, of your country.”

Few members of Congress are willing to address the fiscal sustainability of these programs, nor are they willing to have an honest conversation with their constituents about the dire need for reform.

For the debt commission to have credibility, Schweikert needs to be asked to serve. He’s not interested in partisan games. He’s willing to have an honest conversation about the necessity of reforming and preserving these programs. The fiscal crisis that’s staring us down is too serious to waste this opportunity, and Schweikert understands that better than most in the House. 

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Originally published in on TheHill.com — 10/31/23 11:45 AM ET

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