We don't need the CBO to tell us that the only way to avoid a Greek-style debt crisis is through entitlement reform, but it is helpful that they do so each year in increasingly ominous terms. This year's report projects an increase in mandatory spending from 13.3 percent of GDP to 14.3 percent by 2022. The resulting massive debt comes with rising interest rates to match, which will push net interest costs from 1.4 percent to 2.5 percent of GDP. Under some policy scenarios, publicly held debt will jump to 94 percent of GDP -- the highest levels recorded since just after World War II.
CBO explains that "the aging of the population and rising costs for health care will push spending for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal health programs considerably higher" and "the resulting deficits will increase federal debt to unsupportable levels."
This, of course, is not news. Only the willfully blind or transparently partisan could deny that the 60 percent of the budget consumed by entitlement spending must be addressed to reduce our $15 trillion debt. Congress has not suffered from a lack of awareness that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are closing in on bankruptcy, nor have we lacked for plans to reform the programs. Just last year, President Obama ran away from the Bowles-Simpson plan that, despite its flaws, did include serious reforms. In the Ryan budget, House Republicans passed the most comprehensive, bold entitlement reform plan to date and were promptly vilified for daring to tackle the real cause of the national debt.
But 2012 just might be different. The oft-invoked Churchill observation that Americans will do the right thing after we've exhausted all other options has particular relevance this year. For the first time, Congress actually has tried everything but entitlement reform. In 2011, we made cuts to two consecutive budget years in a single calendar year, marking the first time in modern legislative history that spending declined two years in a row. We even banned earmarks -- that great menace to fiscal security that represents all of 0.75 percent of spending.
The CBO has returned its verdict regarding the impact of this tinkering around the edges of the real problem. The American people are likewise unimpressed, to the tune of a 10 percent congressional approval rating.
President Obama has refused to lead or even engage on this crucial issue, so action must come from Congress. Now that we've run out of budgetary straw men to slay, it's time take on the real driver of the debt by passing meaningful entitlement reform.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) is a member of the House Budget and Appropriations Committees.