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June 18. 2014 7:57PM

No real debate at St. Anselm forum on how to fix the debt

MANCHESTER — The event was headlined as a debate on the national debt between former U. S. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat.

But Rendell set the stage from the get-go, telling the Wednesday morning crowd at St. Anselm College’s Institute of Politics that there would be no fireworks.

“On this issue, we agree on 99 percent of what needs to be done,” he said.

Both men, members of the Fix The Debt Coalition, warned that public concern over mounting national debt and annual budget deficits was high during the “fiscal cliff” standoff in 2013, but has waned even as the crisis has worsened.

Rendell said efforts to address the problem so far have been piecemeal, “with no eye on the future.”

“We are just kicking the can down the road, with no long-term vision,” he said. “The path we are on is flat- out disastrous. If we keep delaying, there will be a day of reckoning, and the cuts then will be so drastic and so painful that we’ll regret we hadn’t done something sooner to spread the pain over a few decades.”

The trends that Rendell and Gregg alluded to in their presentations are well-documented, as an aging population relies on a shrinking pool of younger workers to support social programs. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted by 2033, and that the Social Security Disability Fund could be depleted in as soon as two years. Medicare runs out of money in 2026, according to the CBO.

Both called for entitlement reform, such as increasing the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare, and requiring some sort of means test for both.

“I think it’s silly, given what I make as a private citizen, that I get $28,000 a year in Social Security,” Rendell said.

Gregg echoed that sentiment.

“We have to stop subsidizing people with significant means,” he said. “Why should Warren Buffet’s Medicare be subsidized. It’s foolish.”

Rendell said Democrats have to accept some degree of entitlement reform, and Republicans have to accept changes to the federal tax code that eliminate certain loopholes and deductions.

“Even Mitt Romney supported eliminating the mortgage deduction on second homes,” he said.

The U.S. ranks fifth when it comes to national debt as a percentage of gross domestic product, with Japan, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Belgium leading a list no country wants to be on, Gregg said.

But he sounded an optimistic note in observing that unlike other nations deep in debt: The U.S. “has an extremely vibrant economy that gives us more running room.”

What is missing, he said, is the political will to tackle entitlement and tax reform in an era of divided government.

“Both parties are now moving into a structure based on factions, and you can’t govern in our system if you don’t form consensus,” he said. “You have to have people who are willing to govern sent to Washington, not people who just want to stand in the corners and shout.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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