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Published: Friday, 1/23/2004

Comptroller lashes out at growing federal deficit


WASHINGTON - The comptroller general of the United States unleashed a blistering attack on the nation s growing budget deficit yesterday, saying that it is undermining the future of the nation and putting an all-but-intolerable tax burden on future generations.

“The path we re on is imprudent and unsustainable,” said David Walker, who also heads the General Accounting Office, the nonpartisan, watchdog arm of Congress.

In a session with reporters, Mr. Walker said he has become convinced that neither the administration, members of Congress, nor the public understands how serious a problem the nation s public debt and rising deficit are becoming. “The fiscal gap is too great to grow out of,” he said. Entitlement programs such as Medicare have grown out of control, he said, and the base spending of the government must be overhauled.

“It s time we recognize reality and make tough choices,” he said.

The new prescription drug coverage for seniors through Medicare will cost $8 trillion over the next 75 years, costing every man, woman, and child $25,000, he said. That s in addition to $18 trillion Medicare will cost over that period. And, he predicted, the current benefits in the new drug program, which takes full effect in 2006, will disappoint so many people that Congress will be pressured to make it more extensive and even costlier.

Although Mr. Walker said that making President Bush s tax cuts permanent would be more expensive than anyone has said, he insisted his comments are not political.

He is trying to sound a “wake-up call, he said. “All major tax proposals need to be examined carefully.”

The nation has a total debt of $7 trillion, $4 trillion of it held by the public or foreign investors, and is expected to have a record deficit this year of $500 billion. If foreign investors decide they don t want to hold U.S. debt anymore, it could be catastrophic, he said. “Nobody can go it alone in this global economy, including the United States.”

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press earlier this month conducted a poll finding that half of those polled said the deficit should be a top national priority, up from 40 percent a year ago. Democrats in particular were concerned.

Former President Ronald Reagan had deficits and they didn t hurt his political career, but Mr. Walker said the mechanics that eventually reduced the deficits in the 1990s are gone now. And he said even when surpluses were projected in the 1990s, long-term deficits still were forecast.

Mr. Walker, who is serving a 15-year term that began in 1998, said there is “low-hanging fruit” everywhere, meaning there are dozens of federal programs that could be cut or axed. Dozens of programs set up in the 1940s and 1950s have never been subject to re-evaluation or reassessment, he said. And, he stressed, there are “billions” of defense dollars listed as “miscellaneous.”

When Mr. Bush promises to reduce the deficit by half over five years, Mr. Walker said, the President s projections are “only as good as the assumptions that underlie them.”

In five years, Mr. Bush will leave office if he wins in November, Mr. Walker said.

“It s absolutely critical to consider where we ll be in 10 years” with the current spending levels.

And none of the figures by the Democratic candidates add up, he said. Even those calling for the repeal of tax cuts have ideas on how to spend the money, he said.

Mr. Walker also warns that there is no room for limitless tax increases.

He said he is “outraged” at the tax code. Even as a CPA, he said, he finds it massive, complicated, “incredibly confusing” and “bait and switch.”

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