| May 8, 2013

857 Is Coming

Three digits keep me awake at night.

Washington is full of numbers, but no number has quite shaken my core like 857.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) testifies several times a year before the House Budget Committee, but four weeks ago CBO director Dr. Doug Elmendorf calmly answered my simple question: “On our current course, in 10 years what will the annual interest payment be on our national debt?”

Dr. Elmendorf answered: $857 billion per year.

We often speak about the $16.5 trillion in total national debt and the more than $71 trillion in total obligations we've racked up for the next 75 years. However, the figure that matters most in any single year is the amount of interest we pay, as interest is the first check the federal government writes each month.

In the past 15 years, our national debt skyrocketed from $3.5 trillion to $16.5 trillion, but due to falling interest rates our interest payments remained fairly consistent at around $225 billion each year. While a staggering $225 billion per year in interest is unbelievable, $857 billion a year is unsustainable.

$857 billion is larger than the current annual budget for national defense, Social Security, or Medicare. In fact, it is more than we spent for the entire 12-year war in Afghanistan.

Currently, we borrow $1 trillion per year simply to operate because the federal government has failed to live within its means for so long. In just a few short years, $1 trillion will barely cover our yearly interest payment. Soon, our interest payment will crowd out even more defense, medical research, education, social safety net, and transportation spending.

Our future is uncertain, but it's not too late to act. Through economic growth and careful fiscal policy, we can pull ourselves out of this. Our nation continues to find more energy, which leads to more domestic manufacturing and more employment. As we prioritize our federal spending the economy gains more momentum, which also leads to more employment. But, none of this continues if we never take responsibility for our economy and our debt.

There are no easy answers to the question of how we effectively and efficiently rein in our federal spending. All of the easier options passed us by several years ago. The choices now require real thought and deliberate action to maintain stability for our fragile economy.

After the "fiscal cliff" tax increase, 2013 is forecast to have the highest revenue in our nation's history, making it very clear that we do not have a revenue problem. So, how do we stabilize our economy and slow our spending?

Oklahoma common sense and living within your means come to mind. I am personally grateful for thoughtful fellow citizens and state-based think tanks like our own Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), who have real conversations about real solutions. In the chaos and politics of Washington, it's good to know that many thoughtful Oklahomans are committed to developing strategies that work. We should not and cannot give up the fight for the future of our nation. We are Americans. We seek God's wisdom, take on the toughest challenges, and keep working.

In 1796, George Washington challenged the young nation to pay off all of its debts and not burden their posterity. We are the generation that must deal with the debt and all the consequences of overspending year after year. Ten years is not very long, but $857 billion is certainly a formidable figure. It's time to stop the delay and start the solutions.

857 is coming.

James Lankford represents Oklahoma’s 5th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was elected chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee for the 113th Congress.

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