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Judd Gregg: Rowing into the debt storm

Just when most of the presidential candidates would have you believe that the water is safe; that the debt is under control; that federal fiscal policy is on the mend with lower deficits; along comes the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to tell you that it is not so.

The most recent projections from the CBO are so startlingly bad that they must be restated and highlighted.

The CBO tells us that the deficit will rise this year by $100 billion. That is a lot, even by Washington’s profligate standards.   

But this is not even the really bad news.   

The CBO projects that deficits will continue to rise every year going forward. The deficit in 2025 will be $1 trillion.

This will cause the national debt to rise to $23 trillion by 2026. By that point, the debt will have risen from today’s level of 74 percent of GDP to an astonishing 86 percent of GDP.

These numbers are generally indigestible to most folks. It is difficult to get a real grasp on such enormous sums. This may be why virtually no-one who is running for president talks about the issue.   

In fact, the two main Democratic candidates — Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders warns Clinton: Don't rush to compromise with GOP The Trail 2016: Who is really winning? The evidence backs Trump: We have a duty to doubt election results MORE (I-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPoll: Trump, Clinton neck-and-neck in Ariz. Clinton super PAC raised nearly M a day in October stretch Mental healthcare and the 2016 election MORE —have between them proposed an additional $20 trillion in new program initiatives, with virtually no serious proposals to pay for them.  

On the Republican side, who knows what Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: Trump, Clinton neck-and-neck in Ariz. Clinton super PAC raised nearly M a day in October stretch Mental healthcare and the 2016 election MORE’s ideas will cost? Clearly he doesn’t. Even the more rational conservatives have proposals that will add to the debt on a static scoring basis.

It seems implausible to claim that one is going to lead America to a better place while ignoring the elephant in the room: the national debt and its enormous growth.

Those numbers do not change through grandiose rhetoric or good intentions. Altering our trajectory is going to take some serious and bipartisan work.   

In New England, there is an old fisherman’s maxim when heading into stormy weather at sea: “Pray to god and row towards shore.” Our federal government is rowing out to sea. The coming storm is not going to be pretty.  

At some point — and if the CBO numbers are anywhere near right, it will be in the not too distant future — we as a nation will have a fiscal crisis of potentially apocalyptic proportions.

The practical effect of continuing to run up deficits and debt at this rate will be a significant disruption of global confidence in our economy and our currency.  

This will crowd out investment in the job-creating private sector, since more and more funds will be needed to finance the public sector. 

It will also quite possibly mean tax rates that will completely disincentivize people from taking the risks and making the decisions that generate greater economic activity.  

It will, most dramatically, mean that the standard of living of all Americans — but especially those in the middle class — will drop.

All this will happen so long as we ignore clear facts regarding where the federal government’s fiscal policies are headed — facts that have now been stated bluntly and definitively by the nonpartisan CBO. 

The water simply is not safe. We should be rowing towards shore.  

The hope, of course, is that the dialogue of the presidential election, which currently ignores this obvious threat, will change. Optimists suggest that when all the political bloviating has passed and the next president is actually in office, he or she will step up to address this issue.  

Think again.

Unless the folks who want to lead us discuss the reality of our massive debt problem during their campaigns, there will be no immaculate enlightenment on Inauguration Day. 

That has never happened before and it will not happen within the next 12 months either.   

The next president has to set out the path for improvement now, or his or her presidency will have no path to follow.  

You cannot grab effective ways to address the debt out of thin air. It takes leadership to define the issue and propose ways to address it. And most of the ideas need to be vetted during the campaign, so that the president has a mandate to put them into practice upon taking office.  

None of this is occurring. For it to happen, candidates would need to be forthright with the American people about the problem and the various ways we might get our nation back on the right fiscal track.

Instead, it appears we will simply keep rowing into the storm until at some point the boat is swamped. 

We will all pay a dear price for having ignored the obvious. 

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.