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A bipartisan push is needed to tame ballooning national debt

By Evan Bayh, special to CNN
  • Evan Bayh: Restricting government's ability to borrow is scary, but so's the status quo
  • With bigger deficits, we invest in U.S. less, must borrow from foreigners more, he says
  • Bayh says U.S. must ensure that future generations have better lives, stronger nation
  • Bipartisan debt-fighting panel would help do tough job of balancing books, he says

Editor's note: Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, is a United States senator and former two-term governor of Indiana.

(CNN) -- America's national debt cannot grow beyond a limit imposed by Congress known as the "debt ceiling."

In 1919, just after World War I, the limit on U.S. borrowing was $43 billion.

By 2001, it had grown to $5.9 trillion.

Today, the debt ceiling is at an all-time high of $12.1 trillion.

When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, our public debt amounted to 33 percent of our economy. Today, it is 60 percent of our gross domestic product. If we do nothing, our debt is projected to swell to over 70 percent by 2019.

To put those numbers in perspective: If you divided the debt equally among all Americans, every man, woman and child living in the United States today would owe more than $39,000.

Next month, members of Congress will be asked to vote to raise the roof on our allowable debt for the ninth time this decade.

Before such votes, it has become customary for Treasury officials to write members of Congress warning of the dire consequences of restricting the federal government's ability to borrow. There should be no mistake: These consequences are real.

What those letters often fail to mention, however, are the equally dire consequences of the status quo. Long-term deficits drive up interest rates for consumers, raise prices of goods and services, and weaken our country's financial competitiveness and security.

The bigger our deficits, the fewer resources we have to make critical investments in energy, education, health care and tax relief for small businesses and middle-class families.

Our unsustainable debt is ... rooted in the DNA of both political parties.
--Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana

The bigger our deficits, the more we must borrow from foreign creditors like China, allowing governments with competing interests to influence our economic and trade policies in ways that run counter to our national interest.

Last week, I was joined by a handful of my colleagues at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on strategies for reining in our exploding debt. United in our concern that Congress lacks the will to get our fiscal house in order, we mounted what I termed an "institutional insurrection."

Our unsustainable debt is neither a Democratic nor a Republican problem. It is rooted in the DNA of both political parties. Some in Congress like to spend more than we can afford, and some like to cut taxes more than we can afford. The easy path is simply to borrow until the credit markets will no longer allow it.

This approach violates something fundamental in the American character. Every generation before us has been willing to make the tough decisions and hard sacrifices required to ensure our children and grandchildren inherit a better way of life and stronger country. Now, it is our turn.

The path of least resistance that we have trod for so long is the path to national weakness. If you have the same people and the same process, you are going to get the same results.

For this reason, I will vote "no" on raising the debt ceiling unless Congress adopts a credible process to balance our books and eliminate the red ink.

The proposal I am supporting with Sens. Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota, and Judd Gregg, R-New Hampshire, would create a new debt-fighting commission. Conventional wisdom in Washington is that commissions are something politicians create to defer hard decisions. But our bipartisan panel would put all options on the table, including spending cuts and revenue raisers. Congress would then be compelled by law to debate the recommendations and take an up-or-down vote on the entire plan.

A debt commission will force members of Congress to take -- or reject -- a single gulp of politically difficult medicine to treat the fiscal problems that are ailing our country. Those who choose not to take that medicine would be forced to explain to their constituents why a $12 trillion national debt doesn't make them queasy.

There is precedent to create this type of commission with real teeth. President Ronald Reagan created a commission, chaired by Alan Greenspan, to shore up Social Security in the early 1980s. Congress created a special process to take parochial politics out of decisions on military base closures, and it worked.

Some of my colleagues in Congress believe that efforts to reduce the deficit should go through the regular committee system, but the national debt has doubled this decade. The existing process has not only failed to respond to this problem, it has made it worse.

There are rare moments of leverage in Congress when a few resolute members can force fundamental change. The upcoming vote to raise the debt ceiling is one of them.

Before we borrow more money from our children and grandchildren, we need to commit to a new fiscal process that ensures a legacy of which all Americans can be proud.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Evan Bayh.