For all of my life, America has been the wealthiest and most stable nation in the world. Our economic leadership has allowed us to spend more on our universities and our military, our hospitals and our space program.
Other nations stockpile reserves of dollars in order to back up their own currencies, strengthening the dollar, while our economic power allows us to borrow money inexpensively and invest in the remarkable creativity of our people.
Unfortunately, our central role in the world economy is not guaranteed and our economy is the weakest it has been in a generation.
The national unemployment rate was 10% in December, and in our region it is about 12%.
Many of our families are going through the hardest of times — facing foreclosure, lost jobs and bankruptcy — and fixing the economy has been my primary focus for the last two years.
The urgency of the recession has also hidden a long-term danger. As countries and companies tottered last year, investors fled to the safest place they could — U.S. treasury bonds.
Their investment has kept our interest payments low, even as we built up a frighteningly large deficit, due mostly to the recession, the 2003 tax cuts and two unpaid-for wars.
Last year’s stimulus package is creating millions of jobs and putting the country on the path to recovery. But while necessary, it too added to the deficit, and as the economy recovers and Americans start to go back to work, we must confront the serious problem of our national debt.
On our current path, the debt will increase dramatically over the next few decades, increasing interest rates and jeopardizing confidence in the U.S. economy.
Another fiscal crisis could cause countries to replace their reserve dollars with Euros or yuan, and that transition would cause immeasurable harm to our international leadership and our economy.
There are some members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who are focused on this issue, although we are still a minority. Ever since my election to Congress, I have been a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats who have championed the cause of paying down our debt and balancing the budget for the last two decades.
In the 1990s, Congress enacted statutory “PAYGO” rules that ensured that any bills that increased spending were offset by savings elsewhere. Imposing these rules led to sharply decreasing deficits throughout the ’90s and then to a brief period of surpluses. Regrettably, those PAYGO rules were later repealed. And throughout the last several years, my Blue Dog colleagues and I have fought to bring PAYGO back.
In 2006, we were successful, and PAYGO was included in the rules of that new Congress. This December, we put those rules on an even firmer footing, by enshrining PAYGO in statute. But in our struggle to get out of this fiscal hole, PAYGO is just how we stop digging.
The next step is adopting a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending. This is necessary to get our budget under control and will save $250 billion, helping us halve the deficit over the next three years. And we must go beyond that. I am working with my Blue Dog colleagues in support of several bills that will root out waste and increase efficiency by auditing government agencies and assessing their progress in reaching their objectives.
One bill requires audits of each agency to determine the rate of improper payments to contractors and others, and requires the agencies to design plans to eliminate this fraud. Another bill requires every government program to undergo a periodic assessment to determine if it is meeting the goals and objectives set out for it, so ineffective or wasteful programs can be scrapped.
All of these measures will do a great deal to bring our budget back in balance, but when you review the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the culprit in the long-term budget is not spending on defense, education, foreign aid, or even earmarks — its health care and other entitlement programs.
The health insurance overhaul that the president signed last week will help; it is estimated to reduce the debt by $1.3 trillion over the next 20 years. But we will need to do more to control health-care costs, and address problems in other critical programs like social security.
These reforms will require difficult decisions, and a discipline rarely shown by Congress, but I will be working with my colleagues in the Blue Dog Coalition and like-minded Republicans to address these long-term economic challenges.
I am optimistic about our country’s future, and know that together we can make sure America remains the home of invention and the leader of the world.
Editor’s note: Schiff is a U.S. representative who represents the greater Burbank-Glendale area.