On Thursday, with all eyes on Jacksonville and the Republican presidential debate, political and policy leaders gathered on the First Coast to warn about the threats of the increasing cost of the federal government.
At a forum held at Jacksonville University, former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez joined David Walker, a JU alumnus who served as comptroller general of the United States and the current CEO of the Comeback America Initiative, and Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition.
The Concord Coalition, founded by former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and the late former U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., is dedicated to fighting for fiscal responsibility for the federal government. The group is currently chaired by Rudman and former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who -- along with Tsongas -- ran for the Democratic presidential nomination back in 1992 and is now contemplating running again for the U.S. Senate from Nebraska.
Walker started the forum off with a warning about the federal fiscal situation.
“The country is mortgaging the future of this country at record rates,” Walker said, adding that this policy was “immoral” and “unethical.”
Walker warned that the federal government now consumed almost 24 percent of the GDP in 2011 and it would only increase.
“Government is not the engine of growth, innovation and job creation,” he insisted.
Pointing to growing costs associated with Medicaid and Social Security, Walker called for reform of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and health care. He said the federal government needs to push budget controls and cut defense and other spending. He also called for constitutional amendments.
Walker took aim at career politicians and cast a plague on both political houses. “There is not a party of fiscal responsibility today,” Walker said.
Looking outside the federal government, Walker warned that the states need to get their economic house in order, noting that unfunded obligations would continue to impact state governments.
Noting that Ross Perot raised fiscal issues when he made his first presidential bid in 1992, Walker pointed to the decade that followed as a time when the federal government was able to control spending and reduce the deficit.
Bixby blamed congressional activity in the last decade for eliminating the surplus.
“We spent a lot more than projected,” Bixby said, pointing to increased military actions in the last 10 years and disaster relief.
Looking at projections for the next decade, Bixby called them “quite depressing” and said the deficit would continue as spending went “way up” and revenue went “way down” in the recession.
Bixby noted there is a “certain vulnerability” that results when foreigners continue to back large shares of the national debt. Currently, more than 50 percent of federal debt is funded by foreigners.
Looking at the future size of the federal government, Bixby noted that there would be massive increases in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security spending as well as interest costs on the deficit. He also noted health-care costs would continue to increase -- including changes brought about by the health-care law signed by President Barack Obama.
Bixby called for cuts to the federal government. “There’s a lot of room to cut in the government,” Bixby said. He also called for closing tax loopholes.
Martinez, who resigned from the Senate after serving less than a full term, insisted his former colleagues were not up to facing the problem. “We have to demand better of the Congress,” Martinez said.
Pointing to compromises that shaped the Constitution and early American history, Martinez said Washington needs more politicians who can work together.
“We need to achieve compromise to get things done,” Martinez said.
Martinez attacked political leaders concerned with “posturing" and the next election instead of showing the courage needed to make painful decisions.
“We have to get beyond the perennial presidential campaign,” Martinez said. He added that he was open to term limits.
Looking at the Sunshine State, Martinez said individual Floridians are facing too much debt, including housing loans.
“As housing goes, so goes the Florida economy,” Martinez insisted.
Taking questions from the audience, the three members of the forum supported tort reform, though they warned it would only provide part of the solution to curb health-care costs.
Bixby warned that today’s generation is severely damaging the rising generation.
“It’s not just a numbers problem," he insisted. “Primarily, it’s a moral problem.”
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