With less than two weeks to go before the November elections, it's easy to put out of mind what actually happens on the other side of the finish line of this political horserace. While much of the rhetoric and sniping is sure to subside once the votes are tallied, the real work on important issues is waiting to begin. And no issue is more important, or more urgent, than addressing our bloated national debt.
Largely lost in the noise of the campaign season has been any serious consideration of how to redirect our skyrocketing debt, or of the consequences should lawmakers fail to avert the looming "fiscal cliff" - a combination of spending reductions and expiring tax cuts due to hit at the end of the year, collectively worth $600 billion in 2013 alone.
Objective analysts agree going over the cliff would hurt the economy. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would push the U.S. back into a recession and actually shrink the economy during the first half of next year. But any bipartisan cooperation seems to have left Washington long before Congress departed for recess.
Currently, our total national debt measures more than $16 trillion. The publicly held portion of the debt -- the metric experts find most useful -- now equals more than 70 percent of our entire economy. The U.S. hasn't held such a heavy debt load relative to our economy since the years immediately after World War II. However, on its current trajectory, the debt is projected to reach 100 percent of the economy within a decade.
What's it all mean for Georgians? Simply put, if the debt continues to grow, we'll see fewer jobs being created, wages will tail off, and investment in the U.S. will decline. As the interest payments we owe get bigger, more resources will have to be diverted away from federal projects like transportation programs and national defense contracts to pay them down. And increasing interest rates will translate into higher mortgage and loan rates for families throughout Georgia and across the country.
Already, concerns about whether Congress and the White House will be able to negotiate a deal to avoid the January 1 fiscal cliff have affected the economy. A recent JPMorgan survey found about 40 percent of businesses weren't hiring because of economic and political uncertainty. Moody's Investor Services threatened to downgrade the U.S. credit rating if Congress can't forge a deal, just as S&P did last year. That would weaken the dollar and discourage companies from keeping their plants here at home. Here in Georgia where manufacturing makes up 10 percent of the economy, that could deal a tough blow.
Amid all the clamor of the upcoming elections it may be easy to put the issue out of sight and out of mind, but in reality, the time for action is now. Lawmakers' challenges are twofold. Their first task will be to work together to form a budget deal that averts the year-end fiscal cliff. It will take cooperation across party lines, and no short-term fix is likely to be perfect, but the consequences of failing to find middle-ground are too significant to consider.
The second, long-term hurdle will be to put the national debt on a gradual downward path. Achieving that will require addressing the burden from both sides -- lawmakers will have to come up with ways to create more revenue, and, at the same time, cut wasteful and low-priority spending. In addition, we will have to work to make smart reforms to our entitlement programs to make sure they are solvent for generations to come.
There are no easy answers on how to meet those requirements. Politically, each side will have to concede ground and make some tough decisions. Georgians will have to chip in to help shoulder the load, just the same as individuals from every corner of the country. But more and more there is a rising consensus that can be done.
Earlier this year, the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a grassroots movement and a vehicle for everyday Americans to make their elected representatives know that they will not stand idly by as our national debt treks upward Chaired by former Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, its mission is straightforward: by working together and sharing the load we can find solutions to turn the debt around. I urge those concerned to join the cause by signing the campaign's Citizen's Petition at www.fixthedebt.org. Fortune 500 CEOs, former elected officials, and over 250,000 concerned citizens have already pledged their support.
Correcting the course of the national debt won't be easy, but it's critical. The election cycle will be over soon. Then the real work begins.
Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, is a Georgia state senator representing District 29.