Debt: The greatest threat to America’s national security


As our senior military and economic leaders have stated, the greatest threat to our national security is the national debt burden, a threat that has grown exponentially in the 21st century. At the end of the Cold War, the US benefited from the peace dividend, and defense spending decreased as a share of gross domestic product. The federal budget was balanced, the economy grew dramatically and the total federal debt as a share of GDP fell from 119% in 1946 to 32% in 1980.

During the past two decades, the federal government has increased spending faster than GDP growth and financed much of this increased spending by borrowing. Total federal debt as a share of GDP has more than doubled, from 55% in 2000 to 122%, and is expected to rise to nearly 200% by midcentury.

The US has emerged as one of the most indebted countries in the world, and financial markets indicate that this debt growth is unsustainable. Interest rates on US debt have risen dramatically, and Asian and other countries that have bought this debt in the past have reduced their appetite. Several nations are also working together to reduce reliance on the dollar as a reserve currency. We are now experiencing stagflation, not unlike the 1970s, but with a debt burden comparable to that incurred during World War II.

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Congress has abdicated fiscal responsibility, and we can no longer rely on elected officials to restore fiscal sanity and sustainability. The budget process is broken because elected officials often trade increased domestic spending for more defense spending and charging the nation’s credit cards. The debt ceiling has failed, and other statutory fiscal rules do not stand the test of time. The challenge now is to design more effective fiscal rules that limit spending but give elected officials the flexibility to respond to war and other emergencies.

Other countries, such as Switzerland, have made effective fiscal rules in their constitutions. Switzerland’s “debt brake” was passed as an amendment to their constitution through a citizens’ initiative with the support of 85% of their citizens. The “debt brake” has been in place for several decades and has enabled Switzerland to significantly reduce debt as a share of GDP. A ‘debt brake’ Swiss style has also been enacted in other European countries and in the European Union.

The US now has an opportunity to enact effective fiscal rules within our Constitution. Rep. Jodey Arrington, Texas Republican, and other co-sponsors have introduced HCR 101 calling for an Article V of the American Convention to propose an amendment. That legislation would require that the nation’s archives store and count the many “fiscal responsibility amendments” that have been submitted over the years, and when the required number of applications have been received, to notify Congress that it should call a convention. A recent study of the Congressional Record found that the required number of state applications was reached in 1979, but Congress failed to act. Companion Senate legislation will soon be introduced.

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In an Oct. 7 New York Times column, Jamelle Bouie argued that the Constitution is the enemy of democracy. He said that “a constitution that changes the rule of the majority, leads to authoritarian movements and makes popular sovereignty is not a constitution that can be said to protect, secure or even enable American democracy.” mr. Bouie and other critics fail to recognize that in Article IV, the Constitution guarantees the United States a republic and a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. The Constitution provides rights to both the federal and state governments for the benefit of the American people. This was a key and deliberate decision of our nation’s founders.

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Critics argued that a Convention of States to propose an amendment would be “absurd”. This is false and only condemns the unstable status quo. Our nation’s founders knew they didn’t get everything right for their generation or for future generations. They anticipated that Congress may fail to act in connection with critical national issues and included in Article V the right of the state to also propose amendments to help make our country a more perfect union.

We can no longer rely on Congress to manage our nation’s finances. An Article V State Convention to propose ‘fiscal responsibility amendment’ to the Constitution is necessary to provide the necessary correction. Failure to restore fiscal sustainability will have dire economic, national security and domestic stability consequences over time.

• David M. Walker is the former comptroller general of the United States. Retired Admiral Bill Owens is the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Along with professor emeritus at the University of Colorado Boulder Barry W. Poulson, they are the founders of the Federal Fiscal Sustainability Foundation.


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