Politicians for years have relied on the crutch that there was plenty of time to address our national debt challenge. All the while, they proceeded to make matters worse.
Now, the new projections from the congressional budget scorekeeper show that the debt is no longer an issue for the future. The debt problem is here now, and our elected representatives need to stop business as usual and start taking real action.
Let's face it, it's far easier to cut taxes and increase spending than it is to do the reverse. All one has to do is ignore the required increased borrowing and its ramifications. And too many in Washington have grown quite adept at this.
When pressed, most policymakers acknowledged that the debt will eventually become large enough that it will have to be addressed. However, they would also point to previous statistics estimating the growth of the debt in the years to come and argue that there is plenty of time before debt reaches truly troubling levels.
Well, don't look now, but those big numbers that once appeared to be a problem for future decades are now no longer so far away. According to latest projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), not only will we return to trillion-dollar deficits within two years, but they will then remain above that level indefinitely.
Further, national debt held by the public is now projected to equal the size of the U.S. economy 2031.
Under an alternative scenario that assumes Congress continues borrowing in order to extend various tax cuts and spending increases that are scheduled to expire under current law, debt will become larger than the economy by 2027 and break the all-time record by 2029.
Why the rapid deterioration of the fiscal outlook compared to what was anticipated just last year? Chalk it up to the ambivalence of too many of our leaders when it comes to the debt, even as spending and revenue trends rapidly diverge and entitlement costs accelerate.
Policymakers made tax and spending decisions without regard to the consequences. The massive tax cut package enacted at the end of last year increased the debt because policymakers were not willing to make the tough choices to pay for it. The recent budget deal stacked on even more debt.
In fact, CBO shows that policies enacted since June of last year added $2.7 trillion to the debt through the next decade. And $2.5 trillion more will be added on top of that if policies currently set to expire are extended.
Thanks to this binge of tax cuts and spending increases, the debt could cause trouble for the economy and our pocketbooks much sooner than previously expected.
Our leaders must fix the debt problem sooner rather than later or face serious consequences.
An unforeseen event or crisis could cause the debt to escalate quickly. For example, debt was about 35 percent of the economy just before the last recession. Today, it is 77 percent.
The next major event could rapidly bring the nation's debt to unprecedented levels, and the middle of a crisis is not the time to be reducing the debt. Instead of preparing for a rainy day, our current course could turn the next unforeseen event into a monsoon.
In addition to being unprepared for a crisis, waiting to address the debt means that it will be much harder to fix. If your pipes are leaking, you don't wait until you have a flooded basement before doing something about it.
The whole premise of bipartisan debt reduction plans like Simpson-Bowles was to phase in changes gradually over time in order to avoid the abrupt and crippling austerity that several European countries faced.
Waiting until the debt reaches crisis levels will cause hardship that can be avoided if we begin acting responsibly now.
Pretending that the debt is an issue that can be deferred indefinitely has only served to make things worse. Acknowledging the problem is the first step in getting it under control.
Maya MacGuineas is president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and head of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, based in Washington, D.C.