Will the approaching midterm election simply be a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency, or a more momentous vote affecting America’s future? Will it only postpone the looming financial disaster facing the nation?
Right now, I agree with the best political analysis, which projects that the U.S. House of Representatives will change hands this fall. The GOP losses shouldn’t be as great as they might be, given the fast pace of economic growth and near full employment. But Republicans have done a dismal job of capitalizing on the nation’s strong economy, and the president hasn’t always helped. Instead of focusing on the rebounding economy and building on our prosperity, Republicans have walked right into Democrats’ traps that have forced them to relitigate the last election.
It doesn’t take a big stretch to conclude that both parties would rather fight over divisive political issues than address looming problems that could sink us all. Why? Because addressing those problems isn’t as easy as partisan bickering.
There’s a growing consensus among economists that the nation is approaching a perfect financial storm that has been fanned by both parties and needs both parties to tame it. The biggest problem we face is the huge national debt that is stretching to the breaking point.
In a stark op-ed entitled “America’s Debt Has Exploded,” former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin observes, “The imperative must be to develop a political strategy and a narrative that persuades the broad American public that its economic well-being depends on getting our fiscal house in order.” It’s worth noting that Rubin isn’t a right-wing pundit crying wolf. He’s a liberal-leaning Democrat who’s simply stating the facts.
This impending debt crisis will be made worse as our health care and retirement costs continue to spiral upward. In just a few short years — by 2026, according to government estimates — the nation’s Medicare program will slip heavily into the red. A few years later — by 2037, the Social Security Administration estimates — the Social Security Trust Fund will also tip into deficit. These “unfunded liabilities” will dangerously contribute to the nation’s debt.
Added to this burden is the debt load of younger Americans struggling to pay off huge college loans, and the steep debt carried by American businesses. Put this all together and it points to a day of reckoning our children and grandchildren will not be able to avoid.
Which is why the time to act is now. And that will require a Congress that shakes off its obsession with petty politics and a president who shakes off his preoccupation with petty distractions. These national challenges could be met with a good dose of common-sense measures, including adjusting Social Security and Medicare retirement entitlements, like Congress did a generation ago to keep the programs solvent. A bipartisan approach will again be the key to getting these needed reforms done.
But if American voters are lulled into a false belief that they’re fundamentally changing anything simply by shifting control of Congress from Republican to Democratic, they are sorely mistaken. What they will be aiding and abetting is even worse partisan warfare and division, and more dangerous political gridlock in Washington.
A Democratically controlled House may strive mightily to impeach Trump, but it is likely that the GOP will retain control of the Senate, where no vote to remove the president will succeed. Just think back to the ill-advised GOP effort to impeach Bill Clinton. While a Republican-led House voted to impeach him on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, a Republican-led Senate voted not to convict him. If a GOP Senate didn’t remove Clinton from office for these charges, does anyone really believe a GOP Senate would come up with the required 67 votes to remove Trump for similar charges?
So after all the storm and stress of a protracted impeachment battle, the country will be right back to square one, facing some very hard choices relating to our future economic prosperity.
If this fall’s congressional elections come and go with business as usual in Washington, and the 2020 presidential election approaches with no attention to our looming debt crisis, look for the nation’s economy to begin to feel the inevitable consequences of the inaction. Some future leaders will be compelled to act when the crisis lands full force, but how much better would it be if our leaders woke up now and acted before America faces that storm?
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.