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Linda P. Campbell: Need straight talk on financial sinkhole

  • Fort Worth Star-Telegram
  • Published Monday, Oct. 8, 2012, at 12 a.m.

David Walker isn’t running for president, but he’s on a nationwide bus tour focused on what voters need to know – and ask – before Nov. 6.

Walker served as comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, from 1998 to 2008, and has been warning about the nation’s fiscal irresponsibility for years. After leaving his federal post, Walker continued his assault on the federal debt and now leads an outfit called the Comeback America Initiative that’s dedicated to nonpartisan solutions to problems that transcend political divisions.

His “$10 Million a Minute Bus Tour” is designed to educate voters so they’ll demand real answers from President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney about how they intend to salvage our financial future.

The $10 Million a Minute refers to how much “the federal government’s financial sinkhole” is growing. Each audience on the tour is greeted with a giant “Burden Barometer” board on which the numbers just keep flipping higher and higher. The “Burden Barometer” goes beyond the National Debt Clock, which shows $16 trillion, taking into account total liabilities, unfunded social insurance promises and other commitments based on official government reports. The burden stood at almost $70.8 trillion on Wednesday.

Scary is too mild a word.

When Walker brought his message to Texas Christian University, he filled the auditorium on a recent night.

And he demonstrated that he’s an equal-opportunity critic.

“Health care is eating our lunch,” he said. “The Affordable Care Act did not help from a financial standpoint.”

He said the law will cost $12 trillion more than the politicians claim.

But don’t assume Walker sides with the “repeal Obamacare” crowd.

He favors universal coverage for a broad base of American society, but it has to be affordable and sustainable, he said. It should cover preventive, wellness and catastrophic care, with options for those who want to buy more.

He would bring down costs by switching from a system that pays health care providers by how many surgeries they perform or tests they order, to one that focuses on quality: What does the evidence show works? What do physicians determine will help?

And he would phase out a significant subsidy that only some Americans receive: tax-free income by way of employer-provided health insurance benefits. As Walker points out, an executive with a lucrative health insurance plan pays no taxes on that compensation, a tax break unavailable to a worker at a small business that doesn’t help employees with their coverage.

Walker has well-developed ideas for cutting into other key areas of federal spending, including gradually increasing the age for collecting Social Security, making Medicare premium subsidies more need-based, changing both individual and corporate income taxes, and revising defense planning to contain costs.

Actually getting the work done clearly will be more difficult than talking about it. But before anything can be accomplished, the candidates have to be frank about what hard choices they’re willing to make.

The Comeback America Initiative has developed an online booklet of questions called “The Serious 7.” They basically ask how a candidate would: Get the federal budget under control. Reform Social Security to make it sustainable. Effectively reduce health care costs. Reduce defense spending without compromising national security. Close tax loopholes and raise needed revenue. Transform government to control spending and promote accountability. And fix a broken political system stymied by partisanship and ideology.

If only the presidential campaign – and the bulk of media coverage – were this filled with straight talk about problems and potential solutions.

Linda P. Campbell is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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