Crazy aunt in the attic II

November 01, 2006

Ross Perot became a household name and tipped the 1992 presidential race to Democrat Bill Clinton by warning voters of a huge national debt he said politicians were ignoring like the "crazy aunt nobody in the family wants to talk about."

Fourteen years later, U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker is taking a similar message to the hustings. He lacks Mr. Perot's folksy flair, but his warning is more dire. In 1992, the federal debt was $4 trillion. Now it's $9 trillion and set to double over the next two decades.

Potentially, the stage is set for Democrats to return to partial power in Washington next year and start hacking away at budget deficits and the national debt - as they did during the 1990s in cooperation with Republicans and with much help from the economy.

What's worrisome is that the job may be so much harder now that neither party has the stomach to follow through. And the nation simply can't afford to put it off any longer. Mr. Walker says that crazy aunt could grow so large over the next few decades that the entire sum of federal taxes will be required just to pay the interest.

President Clinton, urged on by fiscal hawks in his party, tackled the $290 billion budget shortfall in 1993 largely by raising taxes on the wealthy and reinforcing pay-as-you-go budget rules imposed by the first President Bush. Later, working with a Republican Congress, Mr. Clinton signed a balanced budget deal that resulted briefly in small annual surpluses, thanks in part to tax revenues boosted by the economy and deep cuts to Medicare providers.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who would become House speaker if Democrats were to win a majority next week, has committed to no new deficit spending, a return to pay-go rules and to consider rolling back tax breaks for wealthy citizens and corporations. But she's calling on President Bush to submit a balanced budget - inviting him to make the tough calls on what spending to cut or taxes to raise - and isn't talking much about the giant social programs that most deeply drain federal coffers: Social Security, Medicaid and, especially, Medicare.

It's no wonder politicians trying to curry favor with voters aren't threatening to tamper with these wildly popular programs. But, as Willie Sutton would say, that's where the money is. Thanks to soaring health care costs and the imminent retirement of the baby boomers, Medicare is four times more expensive today than it was in 1970, and the price tag is expected to double again by 2030.

Mr. Walker plans to spend the next two years trying to alert voters to a problem they don't have the luxury to ignore. Listen up.

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