A nonpartisan group of federal budget experts just issued a dire warning: Our nation's debt is out of control.

Last year alone, public debt increased $1.8 trillion, according to the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform.

That's almost twice the money spent on America's military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

It equals $5,800 for every man, woman and child in the United States.

And that's just the red ink from a single year.

Giant annual budget deficits are expected to shrink a bit over the next few years. But they'll still be huge, stretch as far as the eye can see and surge again as the baby-boomers retire.

President Barack Obama is right that he inherited a lot of this mess from President George W. Bush and the mostly GOP-run Congress during Bush's tenure.

But Obama's budget plan, introduced last week, only ups the ante. He wants to spend and borrow even more -- breaking previous records.

The Peterson-Pew Commission noted that the nation's public debt jumped from 41 percent to 52 percent of our gross domestic product last year. And by 2018, that figure will approach 85 percent, using reasonable assumptions.

But before that could happen, "fears of inflation and a prospective decline in the value of the dollar would cause investors to demand higher interest rates and shift out of U.S. Treasury securities," the commission writes in its December report. "The excessive debt would also affect citizens in their everyday lives by harming the American standard of living through slower economic growth and dampening wages, and shrinking the government's ability to reduce taxes, invest or provide a safety net."

Wisconsin's congressional delegation can't let that happen. And the Peterson-Pew recommendations are a good starting point toward fiscal sanity.

The Peterson-Pew panel calls for an immediate commitment to stabilize the debt at 60 percent of GDP by 2018, with a specific and credible debt stabilization plan adopted this year. Policy changes could phase in starting in two years.

The group suggests creating a "debt trigger" that would automatically cut spending and raise taxes if debt targets aren't met.

"The trigger should be punitive enough to cause lawmakers to act but realistic enough that it can be pulled as a last resort if policymakers fail to act or select policies that fall short of the goal," the report states.

The financial bailouts that Bush and Obama cooperated on were necessary to ensure our nation didn't descend into depression. And Obama's stimulus package, though slow and often misdirected, was probably needed to help the economy steer out of recession.

The economy is still weak. Wall Street is nervous. Many workers still need jobs.

Yet America's rising sea of red ink cannot continue indefinitely. Wisconsin's congressional delegation needs to work together toward a solution, rather than trading partisan potshots and accomplishing nothing.

The time for action is now.





U.S. public debt



The share of that debt for every man, woman and child in America.



Increase in U.S.

public debt since 2001



New debt ceiling

approved by Congress last week.



Years before U.S.

public debt is

expected to hit the new ceiling.



Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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