OPINION: America is going broke, let Washington make a deal

U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock help local officials in McIntyre break ground on a new sewer system.

Credit: Patricia Murphy

Credit: Patricia Murphy

U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock help local officials in McIntyre break ground on a new sewer system.

McIntyre-- U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both visited this little town next to a kaolin plant in Middle Georgia recently.

The state’s two top-ranking federal officials came to this town of about 650 people to break ground on a new sewer system for Wilkinson County. It’s the first unified sewer system for the county and the kind of modern convenience that city dwellers take for granted as they flush their toilets and go on with their days.

As it is now, raw sewage from individual septic tanks frequently backs up into locals’ bathtubs or rises to the surface of their yards and stays there. That means a smell you’d never want and a yard that’s not safe for growing a vegetable garden. Sewage often spills into drainage ditches and local streams.

“Those are public health concerns,” explained Mayor Vicki Horne.

The mayor had to have her own septic tank replaced last year to the tune of $5,000. For anyone who can’t afford a new one, that could mean leaving their home and the town altogether. With a poverty rate of 32% and a median income of $22,000, that kind of expense is not feasible for most people. They needed help.

The new sewer system for McIntyre is possible thanks to $6.3 million of federal money, on top of previous state and federal grants that the city has cobbled together in the 30-plus years they’ve been trying to make it happen.

It’s the kind of federal project that nearly anybody would think is a good use of taxpayer funds. But it’s also the sort of discretionary spending that will become all but impossible in the future if leaders in Washington don’t get serious about slowing, and even lowering, the national debt, which has ballooned to nearly $31 trillion.

A standoff over the debt is intensifying in Washington as Republicans threaten not to increase the nation’s borrowing power without an agreement to cut spending. But Democrats say that raising the limit is about paying the bills the country has already run up, not about what the country will spend in the future.

They’re both right. The debt limit should be raised, on time and without a government shutdown as President Joe Biden is demanding.

But hiking the debt limit and barreling forward shouldn’t be the plan, either.

Budget experts will tell you that unchecked spending, including on tax cuts, will eventually increase the cost to service the debt so much that making interest payments may be all taxes cover. Something has to give.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen just warned members of Congress that the deadline for raising the debt ceiling is fast approaching, as soon as June 1st. How does a summer without national parks sound?

That’s where we’re headed, along with lots of other undesirable outcomes, without a quick, clean agreement to raise the country’s borrowing limit to continue government operations. But the longer-term pressures are real too.

Like any budget that’s out of balance, the federal government eventually needs to bring in more money and spend less over time.

So far, the tough choices have eluded both parties. But would you believe that the biggest impediment to a serious long-term compromise on federal spending isn’t President Joe Biden or Speaker Kevin McCarthy? Instead, it’s us, the voters, who rarely rate a sound federal budget as a top priority, but often punish candidates who seem open to the unsavory steps required to keep the budget healthy in the long term.

That could include both spending cuts and tax hikes. But the longer we wait, the harder it will get.

I spoke with both Warnock and Ossoff at the groundbreaking for the sewer system in McIntyre after they’d each shoveled a hunk of dirt for pictures behind city hall.

“We have to avoid default and it is irresponsible to threaten to impose on the American people the economic catastrophe that would result from a default,” Ossoff said of the ongoing standoff between Republicans and Democrats. “We have a budget process which is the appropriate mechanism for finding common ground on federal budget priorities.”

Warnock echoed that.

“It’s important for all of us that we not risk the full faith and credit of the United States government,” Warnock said. “The debt ceiling ought to be addressed as its own issue. The people of this county and the people of Georgia pay their bills and the government ought to pay its bills.”

And is either one of them stressed about the $30 trillion debt? In a word, yes.

“I am a father to two small children, six and four, and I don’t want to see them burdened with unsustainable debt. So we need deficit reduction,” Warnock said. “We need billionaires and billionaire corporations to finally shoulder their share of the debt.”

“The long-run fiscal sustainability of the United States is a real concern,” Ossoff said. “I welcome proposals from Democrats and Republicans as we consider the budget process.”

McCarthy and his GOP caucus have sent their latest proposal for spending cuts and a debt limit increase to the Senate, and McCarthy and Biden will meet at the White House next week to discuss details. A real success will be a plan to increase the debt limit and an agreement to find a real compromise on spending, along with voters willing to accept it.

Back in McIntyre, Mayor Horne said the federal money that Ossoff and Warnock secured is what she hopes the county needs to start to attract new residents, not lose them, and create an economic stimulus of its own.

“I’m hoping that people will build homes. Hopefully jobs will come,” she said. “That’s our prayer.”

If leaders in Washington don’t get serious about lifting the debt ceiling and then controlling deficits in the future, projects like the one in McIntyre and answered prayers like Horne’s won’t be possible much longer.