In a particularly painful-to-watch moment from The Office, Michael Scott (the hopelessly inept boss played by Steve Carell) must tell an entire class of graduating high-school seniors that he will not be able pay their college tuition — having publicly pledged to do so years earlier in a quixotic fit of benevolence. “I’ve made some empty promises in my life,” Michael confides to the camera. “But hands down that was the most generous.” Needless to say, his classroom confession is poorly received.
In the real world, another (considerably more competent) leader with two first names — Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) — is in an equally unenviable position. When House Republicans unveil their budget document in the spring, it will include a serious blueprint for getting the skyrocketing federal debt under control, (something conspicuously absent from President Obama’s budget proposal). In order to do that, Ryan must address the primary drivers of the long-term deficit: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (in that order). That means proclaiming that the era of empty promises in Washington is over.
Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, knows better than anyone that by going after ‘third-rail’ entitlement programs he is “walking into a political buzz saw.” He’s already been there, done that. His “Roadmap for America’s Future” put forward a sensible plan to reign in spending, reform entitlements, and balance the budget over the next several decades. In return, Ryan and any Republican who so much as mentioned the Roadmap were relentlessly and bitterly attacked by the Left. That, however, is merely a taste of the invective Democrats will unleash the minute Ryan unveils his numbers in the spring, at which point Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign will already be well on its way.
“We have a high hill to climb,” Ryan said at a recent press breakfast organized by Americans for Tax Reform. “Yes, we will be demagogued and, yes, we will be giving political weapons to our opponents, but shame on them, is the way I look at it.”
Shame indeed, given the magnitude of the problem, and of the consequences if we fail address it soon. According to the Government Accountability Office, the United States currently has $88.6 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Talk about a generous empty promise. To put that number in perspective, in 2008, before the economic collapse, the GDP of every single country on the planet was $61.4 trillion. Our politicians have literally promised us the world. And then some.
And as long as we continue not to act, that shortfall is growing, to the tune of about $10 trillion each year. As tens of millions of baby boomers enter retirement, entitlement spending is projected to consume 100 percent of tax revenue within the next 30 years, which is why the Congressional Budget Office’s own computer-simulation model shows that, at its current rate, our economy will actually crash in 2037.
That’s the bad news. The worse news is that while the American public seems keenly aware that the country is facing a monumental debt crisis — a recent poll from The Hill found that 95 percent of likely voters believe that reducing the national debt is either very or somewhat important — they are utterly ill-informed as to how to solve it. According to a recent Bloomberg poll, for example, 42 percent of people said that cutting foreign aid would have a “very large” effect on the deficit, while just 19 percent think cutting Medicare would. In reality, foreign aid accounts for about 1 percent of the federal budget, whereas Medicare accounts for 15 percent. Altogether, entitlement spending consumes about 40 percent of the budget (and growing). Military spending is nearly 20 percent. The portion of the budget that congress is currently at odds over — non-defense discretionary spending — is a mere 12 percent.
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) acknowledged this much in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “People in Washington assume that Americans understand how big the problem is,” he said. “But most Americans don’t have a clue.” Even self-indentified conservatives don’t seem to get it — only 3 percent favor reforming Social Security and Medicare, according to a recent survey.
Herein lies Ryan’s biggest challenge. Not only must he successfully navigate the political minefield ahead, he’ll need to spearhead a massive educational undertaking to convince a majority of the electorate to accept changes to cherished programs. It’s hard to think of a better man for the job. In fact, Ryan has been doing it for while. In his home district in Wisconsin, he has personally conducted more than 500 “listening sessions,” where he explains in detail the nature of the debt crisis — what’s causing it, how it can be fixed — but mostly just takes questions and hears concerns. On Capitol Hill, he’s been doing the same for members of his own party, particularly freshmen, so that they can go home and make the case to their constituents.
The educational outreach, Republican House aides tell National Review Online, will be fairly straightforward: For example, dispelling the widely held notion that simply eliminating earmarks and cutting out “waste, fraud, and abuse” will solve our fiscal problems, when in fact they are mere drops in an ocean of long-term debt. “To enact bold reforms, you need to have public support,” a Ryan aide says. “The American people have to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”