Former congressmen discuss future burden of today’s debt

ORACLE PHOTO/ ADAM MATHIEU

Regardless of political affiliation, no politician has said he or she wants to leave a worse future for tomorrow’s generation. 

On Monday evening, two former members of Congress were brought to the Marshall Student Center Oval Theater in collaboration with USF Student Government and the Concord Coalition to put aside their differences and have an open conversation about the dangers of a rising national debt. 

George LeMieux, a former U.S. senate Republican, said the $17 trillion national debt would compound until today’s youth are crushed under its weight in the near future. 

“We say a trillion like we know what it means, but it’s hard to get your brain around it,” he said. “If you spent a million dollars each day from the year 0 to today, you wouldn’t be able to spend a trillion dollars.” 

Debt has grown in “geometric proportions,” LeMieux said. The U.S. has never seen debt levels this high, adjusted for inflation, since WWII. The national debt reached $1 trillion in 1981 and is projected to reach $20 trillion by 2020. 

Jim Davis, a former Democratic U.S. house representative, said the national debt would snowball until the majority of taxes inevitably went to paying interest. 

“The money that Congress could be spending on other programs is being spent on the interest,” he said. “Every day that we’re having to make interest payments, we’re making choices that will affect the quality of your life years from now.” 

To reduce the debt, they said Congress must either raise taxes or slash spending. 

“The system now isn’t working,” LeMieux said. “There are solutions Democrats and Republicans differ on, but we don’t differ on the problem.” 

The largest source of debt is spending on Medicare and Medicaid, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, though neither congressman commented on whether to cut it.

Both, however, suggested rethinking Defense and International Security spending, which is the second largest source of spending, consuming 19 percent of the federal budget. 

Davis said the U.S. spends so much on its military because it took the responsibility of being the world’s police.

“When there’s a problem in Africa or the Middle East, their leaders turn to us,” he said. “Until we figure out how more parts of the world can share that burden, we’re going to bear the cost.”

Even with reduced defense spending, LeMieux said the U.S. military would continue to be the strongest in the world. 

“We’re going to have to cut our defense spending,” he said. “I’m a Republican who is saying that.”

Social security, the third largest source of federal spending, at 12 percent of the budget, was an issue both congressmen agreed would be unsustainable once the baby boomers retire.

“The government told people that they’re paying into an insurance program,” LeMieux said. “That’s a lie; there’s no money. It’s a big IOU.”

Davis said Democrats should consider increasing the retirement age from 62, as Republicans often propose, and accept citizens are living longer and more productive lives.

Both congressmen said solutions can only be worked out by reaching across the aisle. 

“Everyone is going to have to give up something,” Davis said. “There’s a common goal, there’s going to be a middle ground.”

If the federal government doesn’t compromise to balance the budget, LeMieux said U.S. citizens and other countries might lose faith in the U.S. economy. 

“It would destroy the economy,” he said. “It would destroy the economy around the world.”

If the U.S. can balance its budget and reduce unnecessary spending, both congressmen said the U.S. could put money to better use. Currently, 3 percent of the budget is spent of transportation, 2 percent on scientific research and 1 percent on education.

“There could be a renaissance in this country, a renaissance in energy, a renaissance in technology,” LeMieux said. “Our best days could be ahead of us.”

As key to a functioning democracy, both congressmen said the ordinary voter must get involved and reach out to their public officials.

Davis said the largest obstacle to this is gerrymandering, a process where electoral district boundaries are drawn to favor one political party.

“The Democratic Party is becoming more liberal, the Republican Party is becoming more conservative,” he said. “This is not good when you’re trying to compromise.”

Nonetheless, LeMieux said congressmen will listen if enough constituents present a clear voice.

“Our government is only as good as we allow it to be,” he said. “It’s ultimately on us.”

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