EDITORIAL: A call to stop the debt spiral

November 20, 2010

President Obama’s fiscal commission is doing its job by recommending tough taxing and expense-slashing measures meant to attack our nation’s debt crisis. Indiana’s congressional delegation should keep the momentum going.

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, tasked with finding ways to improve the debt situation in the medium term and achieve fiscal sustainability in the long run, issued a preliminary report earlier this month that promptly drew heated attacks from both the right and the left.

Co-Chairmen Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, chief of staff to President Clinton, propose slashing the runaway federal deficit nearly $4 trillion by 2020. About three-quarters of the achievement would come through spending cuts and the balance by raising taxes or closing loopholes.

The full commission is expected to emerge with a compromise within weeks, and leaders from both parties in the House and Senate have said they will vote the proposal up or down if at least 14 of the 18 commission members support it.

It goes without saying this problem should have been nipped in the bud years ago. Congress could have tackled the problem by forming its own commission, as it has in the past to close military bases, with an agreement ahead of time that the resulting recommendations would receive an up or down vote.

But even a small advancement like the Obama commission’s initial report is welcome.

The very strength of Simpson’s and Bowles’ collective opinion is their willingness to gore just about everyone’s ox. This breath of fresh air is an opportunity for Indiana Sens. Richard Lugar and Dan Coats to push a cause they’ve long championed. It’s also a chance for U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, a Republican who is widely expected to run for governor and possibly president, to show he can lead by persuading his caucus to accept some tax increases if they are coupled with overall reductions in income tax rates.

Last week, Indiana University historian James Madison told IBJ he’s only “marginally” optimistic the American character is still sufficient to tackle an outsize crisis. Americans, he said, made wrenching decisions about the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II, but it remains to be seen whether we’re capable of making the tough choices necessary to stop borrowing our way into oblivion.

That’s a sobering assessment coming from one of the state’s foremost historians. Lawmakers should rise to the occasion and do the right thing.

Let’s hope our representatives make us proud. The problem, and the solution, will only get worse if they don’t.•


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