National debt is the greatest threat to our country, its time for Congress to act

Senators Romney and Manchin, Representatives Huizenga and Peters push for bipartisan fiscal commission in op-ed ahead of House Budget Committee markup

National debt is the greatest threat to our country, it’s time for Congress to act
By: Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Representatives Bill Huizenga (R-MI) and Scott Peters (D-CA)
The Hill
January 18, 2024

While many Americans were celebrating the holidays with their loved ones, our country reached a milestone that is nothing to celebrate: The United States national debt now exceeds $34 trillion.

In just ten years, the national debt has more than doubled. Not only is this level of debt unsustainable, but it is growing at the largest rate seen in the history of this country. $34 trillion is a staggering amount of money. To put this in context, the national debt has now exceeded $100,000 for every person in the United States. Given the imminent nature of this crisis, continuing to turn a blind eye will only put the American Dream further out of reach for our children and grandchildren.  

It is easy to point fingers, but both parties are to blame for our country’s fiscal condition. Policies enacted by both Republicans and Democrats—across presidential administrations and several congresses—have led to soaring annual budget deficits. In 2023 alone, the federal deficit totaled $1.7 trillion, more than three and half times as large as it was in 2014.

Interest payments on the debt totaled $659 billion in the last fiscal year, making it the fourth largest expenditure in the budget. In the next few years, interest payments are on pace to exceed both defense and non-defense discretionary spending, which includes education, transportation and more. And if we continue at this rate of fiscal imbalance, in the not so distant future, interest payments will be our largest expenditure.

In 2010, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, stated that, “the most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” It is hard to imagine a circumstance where the United States can continue to lead the world when we spend more on interest than on defense in a given year. The United States prevailed over the Soviet Union during the Cold War because the Soviet Union could not keep up with the buildup of our defense industrial base. As the Chinese Communist Party works to overtake us as the global superpower, we cannot allow the national debt to so greatly burden our country to the point that we are unable to make the necessary investments in national security.

Two-thirds of the federal budget happens automatically—without a vote by Congress—and over time, Congresses have moved more and more domestic spending into this category. As Washington bounces from one government funding fight to the next, it is important to keep in mind that fights over annual appropriations only include merely one-third of the federal budget. 

Getting our country back on track will take more than adjustments to discretionary spending levels. Now more than ever, we must find bipartisan solutions that stabilize our nation’s finances for future generations. American families need stability. Requiring bipartisanship, as our fiscal commission does, ensures Congress reaches solutions that will stand the test of time.

We have proposed the establishment of a bipartisan, bicameral fiscal commission tasked with finding solutions to strengthen our fiscal health and meaningfully decrease the national debt. This 16-member commission would consist of 12 members of Congress and four outside experts, equally appointed by congressional leaders. 

This commission would look at the federal budget as a whole—closely examining both spending and revenue sources, leaving no stone unturned. It’s important to note that there are no preconceived outcomes and any proposal recommended by the commission would require bipartisan support to advance. Our commission has been adapted to overcome challenges encountered by Simpson-Bowles in 2010 by having an established process for a potential proposal to receive expedited consideration in both the House and Senate, while maintaining the 60-vote threshold in the Senate ahead of final passage.

Getting out of this mess will require putting aside the political posturing. There are possible solutions that improve our nation’s fiscal future and preserve critical programs, like Medicare and Social Security. A bipartisan fiscal commission, like the one we are proposing, is the most practical and immediate chance we have to advance those solutions, address this crisis and protect seniors.

Those who claim a fiscal commission is simply a trojan horse for cuts to Social Security and Medicare are engaging in fearmongering. What will jeopardize these benefits is inaction—keeping the status quo. Social Security will become insolvent in less than ten years, which would result in an automatic cut in benefits by 24 percent. That is unacceptable. Those who propose doing nothing are effectively paving the road to bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare. Congress needs to find solutions that preserve these essential programs for Americans who today are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

The national debt is the greatest threat our country faces—and we are rapidly approaching the crisis point. We were elected to lead, and that involves making sacrifices and tough decisions. There is growing appetite on both sides of the aisle to address our national debt. It is time for Congress to put the interests of the country ahead of political expediency and get us on sound fiscal footing before it is too late.

Opinion published in The Hill.