The Peterson-Pew Budget Commission met from 2009 to 2011 to make recommendations about how to improve the nation’s fiscal future. This site is historical and not regularly updated.

Deficits and Debt

Op-Ed: We Must Tackle the Debt Threat Now

The Hill | Jan. 25, 2010


From Afghanistan to China to Copenhagen, the actions of President Barack Obama have international significance. However, the greatest worldwide implications will stem from a domestic issue that he must not ignore: our nation’s mounting government debt. The U.S. has a debt problem, and the world is watching. The administration’s response will dictate not only the standard of living of future generations of Americans, but also their country’s global standing.

Just as the White House recently said that it would not have an open-ended commitment when it announced its new Afghanistan strategy, the United States cannot have an open-ended reliance on deficit finance. It needs a fiscal exit strategy that puts the budget on a sustainable path, keeps the economic recovery on track, and avoids a future fiscal crisis.

The budget problems are not brand new. Even before the economic downturn, the long-term trajectory showed a sharp rise in budget deficits as a share of the economy. But recent policy actions have expanded their size and accelerated their arrival. Under reasonable assumptions about what policymakers are likely to do on tax and spending policies in the next year or so, the nation’s public debt will likely be larger than that run up during World War II and will exceed the size of the economy in less than 15 years.

What are the global implications of spiraling U.S. debt? An ever-growing proportion of our debt must be sold outside U.S. borders and some international investors have publicly expressed concern about continuing to finance our spending. It was no accident that the issue of U.S. debt arose during President Obama’s recent trip to Asia. If international markets come to the conclusion that the United States cannot manage its debt, the U.S. will be unable to continue to borrow as freely, or cheaply, as it now does. The American economy could falter and U.S. securities could lose their value as investors flee to alternatives.

Policymakers should tackle this threat immediately.

The White House and Congress should commit to stabilizing the public debt (as a share of the economy) as quickly as feasible. That commitment, in and of itself, if credible, will reassure credit markets around the world that the U.S. is serious about getting in front of the debt threat. This will require that over the next year the administration and Congress craft a package of specific spending cuts and tax increases to achieve that goal. Democrats who are engaged in a spending spree won’t like to contemplate the former. Republicans who are traditionally averse to higher taxes will balk at the latter. Both need to place a higher weight on their obligations as guardians of the economic opportunities and living standards of future generations.

We recognize the need to balance fiscal responsibility and economic recovery, so the policies should be phased in as the economy recovers.

But other countries’ experiences have shown that a credible commitment to reducing debt can improve creditors’ expectations and diminish the risks of a debt-driven crisis while bolstering the economy. After an investment downgrade and debt of more than 100 percent of GDP in the 1990s, Canada implemented a plan that brought a decade of budget surpluses, and lowered its debt by around 40 percent of GDP by 2008.

The economies of Denmark, Sweden and Ireland were also improved simply through the implementation of a fiscal stabilization plan.

The United States can send a powerful message to the world that it can still exhibit leadership, tackle challenging problems, and bridge partisan divides to make politically unpalatable choices. Any meaningful effort to address the budget problems will have to be bipartisan and cannot be undercut by rigid stands on certain taxes or particular programs.

The possibility that future generations might be saddled with a lower standard of living and a much less-dynamic economy has moved from rhetorical scare tactic to frightening possibility. Without concrete action soon, this devalued bequest may also include a nation with greatly diminished global clout.

Copyright 2010, The Hill

Testimony: Perspectives on Long-Term Deficits

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Testifying on long-term deficits before the House Budget Committee, Maya MacGuineas stated that "what was once a long-term fiscal problem has become an immediate one." She also explained that "we no longer have time on our side," and that the economic risks of doing nothing are tremendous. The best approach would be to immediately commit to and develop a credible plan to stabilize the debt, with policies phasing in gradually as the economy recovers. 

Op-Ed: Quit Digging the Federal Spending Hole

Star-Telegram | Dec. 28, 2009


Here in Texas, we have a saying: When you find yourself in a hole, the first rule is to quit digging.

As I learned from my 26 years in the House of Representatives, that’s not always easy advice to follow. Members of Congress like to deliver projects and programs back to their districts. And for a while, we were all told that deficits didn’t matter. As we’ve learned, they do matter. We may have not been able to avoid deficits in the past two years as the government tried to fix the economy, but I’m not worried about two years. I’m worried about the path that our debt is on, even after the economy gets better.

We’ve been on a path of reckless spending that seems never-ending. If only Congress and the White House could make changes like the folks in West Texas have had to do during this economic and financial crisis, then we could get out of our fiscal mess. The situation is bad and will only get worse if we don’t stop digging and do something.

If we do not lower our government debt, we will see interest rates go up, wages stagnate and our standard of living decline. Our grandchildren and their children will be left with the burden of paying for today’s borrowing and spending. This will mean large tax increases and large spending cuts.

The increased federal debt will make it more expensive to borrow for housing, education and business investments. If people are unable to borrow money, they will not be able to buy a new house or send the kids to college. It will really hit home for the American people when they go to the bank and cannot borrow any money. Or the interest rates will be so high that they can’t afford the loan. Higher interest rates will stop investment and hurt the creation of new jobs, something we desperately need.

While there is no silver bullet when it comes to fiscal responsibility, the bipartisan Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform has come up with some reasonable targets. In "Red Ink Rising — A Call to Action to Stem the Mounting Federal Debt," a report we just released, we describe six steps to solving the debt problem.

We recommend that Congress and the White House develop a fiscal framework that includes promising to stabilize the public debt by 2018. The commission offers a path for getting there, annual debt goals with an enforcement mechanism and a plan to reduce the debt over the longer term. Waiting too long could fail to reassure our government’s creditors.

I’m a farmer in real life, and I understand that my banker has a lot to say about what we can or can’t do. As a former member of Congress who worked and, occasionally sparred, with both parties, I know that having this bipartisan group of policymakers agree on a plan is quite a feat. Enacting our proposal will be tough in this political climate. But it’s crucial that leaders in both parties make the tough choices. As elections approach, my Democratic and Republican friends in Congress need to remember that this is an issue for all Americans so that we can keep our standard of living and avoid a crisis.

Washington needs to commit soon to a clearly defined plan that changes the way it taxes and spends to show the world that the U.S. is serious about debt. Average citizens have tightened their own budgets and begun to live within their means, and now Congress and the White House have to follow suit. The public is ahead of the politicians on this one. As a farmer, I am an optimist. And I believe that policymakers can put aside their individual political interests to find a solution that is in the best interests of our nation and our children’s future.

Copyright 2009, Star-Telegram

Op-Ed: The Coming Debt Crisis

iStock Analyst | Dec. 27, 2009


We all know about the current fragile state of the economy. What is quickly becoming evident is that our nation's longer-term fiscal picture is even more precarious because of mounting government debt and the unwillingness of our elected leaders to address it.

I've seen the results of economic crises first-hand and they are not pretty. I was the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico during the 1994 Mexican peso crisis. Mexicans' standards of living were cut in half overnight and now 15 years later the middle class still has not been fully repaired.

Before that, representing Oklahoma in the House of Representatives, I served as chairman of the Budget Committee during the turbulent economic period of the 1980s.

Those experiences convinced me that we must now realize that our nation's short-sighted fiscal policies leave us vulnerable to our own debt crisis. The federal debt is almost $8 trillion and rising. Without policy changes, it will climb to unsustainable levels and debilitate the economy.

Under reasonable assumptions, debt is projected to grow to 85 percent of gross national product by 2018, 100 percent by 2022, and 200 percent in 2038. That is a prescription for financial calamity. Eventually, investors will lose confidence in our ability to manage our finances and will not buy U.S. securities.

The likely results are higher interest rates, lower wages, and slower economic growth and job creation. That crisis would result in Americans being unable to find credit to purchase homes, buy cars or send their kids to college.

To avoid such a calamity, we require the sort of political courage that so far has been lacking in Washington. Several distinguished colleagues and I are serving on the bipartisan Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform. We recently released a report, Red Ink Rising: A Call to Action to Stem the Mounting Federal Debt, which details the coming debt crisis and proposes a six-step plan to address it.

The commission recommends that Congress and the President commit now to stabilize the debt at 60 percent of GDP by 2018, develop a credible package over the next year to attain that goal, begin phasing in the plan in 2012, implement a "debt trigger" automatic mechanism to ensure that the process stays on track, and continue to reduce the debt as a share of the economy after 2018. This is an ambitious, yet attainable, solution.

Our leaders face a great challenge but it is not insurmountable. We must be committed to reducing the debt. The longer we wait, the harder it will be on all of us and on our children and grandchildren.

Copyright 2009, iStock Analyst

Op-Ed: Not Just Another Budget Commission

Forbes | Dec. 21, 2009


Last week Bruce Bartlett devoted his Forbes column to criticizing plans for a budget commission to make recommendations on how to deal with the country's fiscal imbalances. This is the approach the White House and Congress seem poised to pursue to come up with the specific policies to put the nation's budget back on a sustainable path.

In making his case, Bartlett chose to take a number of swipes at our new report, Red Ink Rising, which calls for policymakers to commit to and develop a plan to stabilize the government's growing public debt at no larger than 60% of the economy by 2018.

The mission of the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, made up of some of the most respected budget authorities in the nation, is to make recommendations to reform the country's outdated and ineffective budget process. We determined that the first step, given our horrid fiscal condition, is to develop a "fiscal goal" and put forth a framework to achieve it. (We will soon make further recommendations on more technical reforms such as budget baselines, government trust funds and new budget enforcement mechanism.)

We arrived at the 60% ratio because it reflects international standards at a time when one of the primary focuses of stabilizing the debt is to reassure foreign creditors that the U.S. continues to be a sound place to invest.

We picked 2018 because what was once a long-term fiscal problem, driven primarily by aging of the populating and growing health care costs, has become a more immediate problem exacerbated by the recent economic crisis. We now have to move more quickly. Waiting a full decade would have been risky, concerning the possibility of a fiscal crisis occurring before we stabilize the debt. However, we also recognized that acting too quickly could destabilize the budding economic recovery. So we attempted to balance both fiscal and economic considerations.

Some will say the goal it too aggressive, while others will complain it doesn't go far enough. Ultimately, Congress will have to decide whether our recommendations make sense. Bartlett's criticism however, comes a bit out of left field.

Bartlett argues that we failed because we didn't "put forward a serious, detailed plan for cutting the deficit that left no sacred cow unscarred." Well ... true ... we did not. But as Bartlett knows, because we talked about it over the telephone extensively before he published his article, we never intend to. Putting forth a budget plan of some type was not the purpose of our budget commission--not even close. It's like criticizing Bartlett's call for a value-added tax for failing to fix Social Security.

Red Ink Rising focuses on the first step in reforming the budget process during times of fiscal stress: setting a fiscal goal. Before our leaders can agree on the legislative specifics, they need to agree politically and publicly that debt reduction must be a national priority and that they need to set a specific national fiscal goal.

Sure, we could have put out a report calling for raising the retirement age, temporarily freezing discretionary spending, restructuring Social Security and Medicare, broadening the tax base, or creating a broad-based energy tax to deal with the nation's fiscal problems. The options that will be necessary are in fact well-known. Many of our members have been writing about them for years. There is no right or wrong answer for what combination the ultimate package will include. It will be the result of complex political negotiations. (We do show an illustrative budget of what it would take to achieve our proposed goal.)

But as we have seen in the past, getting prematurely specific is more likely to poison the debate then help. This has happened in presidential campaigns, for instance, where when the issue of raising the retirement age comes up candidates stumble all over themselves to promise they'll never do such a terrible thing (even though most experts agree it is in order given growing life expectancies). Most recently, when candidate John McCain suggested reforming the tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, candidate Barack Obama criticized it (again, even though almost all experts support the policy), and as a result the good idea was poisoned and left out of current health reform bills--an unfortunate outcome.

For the greatest chance of success, the right sequence is to first agree there is a problem and commit to a goal, and then to get specific.

Our report asks that we draw a "debt line in the sand" as a way to start discussing how our country must rebalance its spending and tax policies over the next decade. Once policymakers agree to a public fiscal goal and to debt reduction, we can move to a productive discussion of how to get there.

Copyright 2009, Forbes

Op-Ed: No more Ignoring the Debt - It's Time to Get Skin in the Game

The Hill | Dec. 18, 2009


At the same time he is weighing further economic stimulus plans, the President is also arguing for getting deficits under control. There is no question that the United States is on an unsustainable fiscal path. The large and growing federal debt looms over every legislative decision before Congress. This will be the case for years to come as our policymakers struggle to fund economic stimulus packages now or health care and the retirement costs of our aging population over the next two decades from revenue sources that will not grow nearly as quickly as those demands will. The consequences are serious for public policy, the economy, and the standard of living of the American people.

For the past year, along with our colleagues on the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, we have wrestled with this critical issue — a federal debt that is out of control. The Commission members share a common concern: the fiscal future we leave to succeeding generations will lower their standards of living. It is our strong belief that we must take action now to prevent that from happening.

Even after the economy has recovered from the deep recession, structural deficits will remain. The debt is on course to reach levels never before experienced in the United States. While it was necessary to ramp up spending to respond to the recent sharp decline in the economy, the United States must adopt a plan to stabilize the debt immediately and take the first steps down that path very soon.

Under reasonable assumptions, debt held by the public is projected to grow steadily, reaching 85 percent of GDP by 2018, 100 percent by 2022, and 200 percent in 2038. Before the debt reached such high levels, the United States would almost certainly experience a debt-driven crisis—something previously viewed as almost unfathomable in the world’s largest economy.

On December 14, our bipartisan Commission presented a report containing recommendations for how lawmakers and the administration can tackle the debt – “Red Ink Rising: A Call to Action to Stem the Mounting Federal Debt.” In the report, we recommend: that policymakers commit to a plan for stabilizing the public debt over a reasonable timeframe; specific policies to stabilize the debt; annual debt targets with an automatic enforcement mechanism to ensure targets are met; and that policymakers commit to reducing the debt level over the longer term.

But in short, we agree that any solution must include tough choices on both sides of the budget. Both tax increases and spending cuts will have to be part of the solution so everyone has skin in the game.

The biggest factor in whether Congress can succeed in this task is political will—members of all political persuasions will need to come together and make tough choices. Promises not to raise certain taxes or reduce certain benefits only stand in the way of a realistic plan. Any meaningful effort to address our fiscal problems will have to be bipartisan. Remember the public is ahead of us on the issue of fiscal responsibility. But we all have to join forces to get the tough job done.

Congress will soon, once again, raise the country’s debt limit so the lights can stay on through the holidays. Key senators are demanding the formation of a bipartisan fiscal task force to deal with our fiscal problems in exchange for their votes to raise the debt ceiling. Unfortunately, lawmakers have not yet come together in the face of international concerns about how the United States is dealing with its debt, and with average citizens across the country tightening their belts, to put together a fiscal management plan to secure our economic future.

Lawmakers can begin now to put such a plan in place. But they can phase-in the necessary revenue and spending changes starting in 2012 to allow the economy to recover and to give beneficiaries and taxpayers time to adjust to a tougher budget. Committing now to a fiscally-responsible future will show our international creditors that we are serious about getting our debt under control.

Republicans and Democrats alike need to accept that they will have to cut spending and raise taxes to bring our debt down to a manageable level. Everyone should have a stake in the outcome – skin in the game we like to say. If that happens, everyone can take the credit for leadership, and, more importantly, our children and grandchildren can reap the benefits.

Copyright 2009, The Hill

Op-Ed: In a Debt Hole, Let's Stop Digging

New York Daily News | Dec. 16, 2009


For years, Americans have been conditioned to worry about federal deficits. Congress and the President, we've been told, should strive to balance the federal budget every year. When annual deficits got big, there was hand-wringing. When Bill Clinton left office with a federal surplus, there was celebration.

But by worrying only about annual red ink, policymakers have ignored a far larger problem - the now-looming federal debt that is growing by the day.

New Yorkers in particular are reminded of this every day. The city is, after all, home to the government debt clock, the digital billboard that keeps track of our massive, mounting obligations.

Even before the economic downturn, the government had debt that was expected to grow over the years as a share of the economy. Now, the projections have become staggering: Under reasonable assumptions about what policymakers are likely to do on tax and spending policies in the next year or so, the nation's debt will likely grow to 100% of Gross Domestic Product by 2022.

In other words, we'll owe loans that are equal to the entire value of all the economic activity generated in the United States in a given year. Soon after that, our debt would surpass levels seen just after World War II, when it reached 109%.

Yes, we recovered and prospered after that war. But times were different then - that government debt was owned nearly entirely by domestic investors, including everyday Joes and Janes who stepped up patriotically to help pay for the war.

What's happening today is a formula for crisis.

First, because about half of our public debt is held by overseas investors. Without action in Washington, we could someday see a headline like this on the Daily News' front page, "World to U.S.: Drop Dead."

Second because, as with your personal credit cards or mortgages, the government cannot borrow for free. It must pay interest. Interest payments, now at 6% of the budget, will grow to 15% by 2018, squeezing out other budgetary priorities.

Our creditors have traditionally seen the United States and its debt as a secure investment. But as concerns about our fiscal stability grow, investors may not want to buy more U.S. debt. The U.S. Treasury would then have to raise interest rates on U.S. bonds to attract the funds we need, further increasing the interest burden on the budget. It could become a vicious downward economic spiral.

It is not just the government that will pay more if this happens. Families and businesses will have to pay more, too. Everything from mortgages to school loans will cost more. So will business loans. Companies may not be able to borrow money to expand their operations and entrepreneurs may be less likely to start new small businesses, the source of most new jobs in our economy.

Copyright 2009, New York Daily News

Red Ink Rising

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In Red Ink Rising: A Call to Action to Stem the Mounting Federal Debt, The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform calls on policy makers to stabilize the national debt through a six-step plan. Crafted over the past year by former heads of the CBO, OMB, GAO, and the congressional budget committees, the plan reflects a bipartisan approach to avoiding the tremendous global risks of America's expanding debt, without destabilizing the economic recovery. Red Ink Rising is the first of two major reports to be released by the commission.

Event 12/14: Release of 'Red Ink Rising'

On December 14, the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform hosted a public event , moderated by David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal, to announce the release of its report, Red Ink Rising: A Call to Action to Stem the Mounting Federal Debt.  The six panelists included a distinguished group of fiscal experts, including among their many titles, former chairmen and ranking members of the House Budget Committee (Bill Frenzel, Jim Nussle, and Jim Jones) and two former CBO directors (Alice Rivlin and Douglas Holtz-Eakin). The panelists discussed the Commission’s proposal to address the debt. (See the webcast of the event below).
Bill Frenzel, the co-chair of the Commission, started off the event by discussing the plan. The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform calls on policy makers to stabilize the national debt through a six-step plan.  The commission recommends that Congress and the President commit now to stabilize the debt at 60 percent of GDP by 2018, develop a credible package over the next year to attain that goal, begin phasing in the plan in 2012, implement a “debt trigger” mechanism to ensure that the process stays on track, and continue to reduce the debt as a share of the economy after 2018.
The economic and financial consequences of the debt problem also worried the panel. Jim Jones, a former head of the American Stock Exchange as well as the ambassador to Mexico, warned that financial markets are irrational and that a debt crisis can emerge overnight. During his time in Mexico, he saw how government debt can overwhelm families as its economic implications force them out of their homes and lower their standards of living. Douglas Holtz-Eakin warned that growing government debt will crowd out private investment and hurt economic growth.
Then, the panel turned to the politics of solving the debt problem. Jim Nussle argued that it will take a crisis or rude awakening to spur politicians to act. It might be a financial or market crisis, but he also believed that a political event, such as a midterm election loss or a presidential race where debt was a major issue, might force policymakers into overcoming their differences. Panelists also discussed the role of presidential leadership in solving this problem. Bill Frenzel thinks it will require the President to present a plan and even after that, require the President to force Congress to sit down and discuss a solution to the debt. Alice Rivlin echoed his comments and suggested that the 2011 budget (due from the White House in early February) will show how serious the White House is about addressing the debt (and how much they fear the political consequences of not addressing it).   And then Charlie Stenholm, a Commission co-chair, offered that we also need political reform (specifically the redistricting of congressional seats) to ensure that we can address difficult problems such as the debt.

Budget Blueprint: Paths to 60 Percent

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In Red Ink Rising: A Call to Action to Stem the Mounting Federal Debt, The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform calls on policy makers to stabilize debt held by the public at 60 percent of GDP. Given our current fiscal path, reaching this debt goal will not be easy. While the Peterson-Pew Commission does not endorse specific tax and spending policies to meet this goal, Budget Blueprint: Paths to 60% aims to demonstrate the types and magnitude of necessary policy changes.

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