De­bate ques­tion­ers, please ask this

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

“As pres­i­dent, what would you do to bal­ance the fed­eral bud­get and re­duce the na­tional debt?”

That’s a sim­ple, straight­for­ward ques­tion about an im­por­tant is­sue af­fect­ing ev­ery Amer­i­can. So it’s odd it hasn’t been asked once in 14 hours of Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial de­bates this year.

The can­di­dates have been asked 374 questions so far, ac­cord­ing to Fix the Debt, a pro­ject of the non­par­ti­san Com­mit­tee for a Re­spon­si­ble Fed­eral Bud­get. Not once have they been asked about the fed­eral govern­ment spend­ing an es­ti­mated $984 bil­lion this past fis­cal year that it did not have.

That’s al­most $3,000 for ev­ery Amer­i­can man, woman and child. Un­cle Sam spent $4.446 tril­lion but only col­lected $3.462 tril­lion. The can­di­dates have not been asked about the cu­mu­la­tive na­tional debt, ac­crued over cen­turies, now be­ing al­most $23 tril­lion, or more than $69,500 for ev­ery Amer­i­can.

They have not been asked about how to ad­dress the loom­ing short­falls in So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care.

The lack of questions is il­lus­tra­tive of the coun­try’s col­lec­tive blind eye re­gard­ing these in­con­ve­nient truths. The United States has been in debt since the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, ex­cept for a brief pe­riod in the 1830s when it paid ev­ery­thing off. But the debt has been grow­ing ex­po­nen­tially in re­cent years. It took 210 years to reach

$5.67 tril­lion by Sept. 20, 2000. The debt has grown $17.27 tril­lion since then. It was a lit­tle less than $20 tril­lion the day Pres­i­dent Trump took of­fice. It’s grown about $3 tril­lion in less than three years.

And yet the debt regis­ters so lit­tle on the pub­lic con­scious­ness that de­bate ques­tion­ers haven’t felt com­pelled to ask a sin­gle ques­tion about it. It’s a prob­lem but not a cri­sis – yet – and there’s al­ways an­other cri­sis call­ing for im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion. We all know we can’t keep spend­ing money we don’t have for­ever, but we also know we can prob­a­bly keep do­ing it a while longer. So we’ll talk about some­thing else for now.

Such an at­ti­tude is as dis­as­trous for a coun­try as it is for a fam­ily or a busi­ness. If a fam­ily were spend­ing $45,000 a year but only earn­ing $35,000, it had bet­ter dis­cuss where it can cut back on ex­penses and maybe earn some ex­tra money. A busi­ness with $450,000 in ex­pen­di­tures but only $350,000 in rev­enues must fig­ure out how to stop dig­ging it­self into that hole.

Be not de­ceived: The same ap­plies to the fed­eral govern­ment. It takes longer to reap what you sow, but even­tu­ally you will reap. The na­tion must have a con­ver­sa­tion about its own ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity. Elec­tions are the ideal time to have that con­ver­sa­tion. And it starts with putting the can­di­dates on the record re­gard­ing what they would do about this is­sue.

I’ll fin­ish this col­umn with a con­fes­sion and then a per­sonal anec­dote. The con­fes­sion is, I haven’t watched a minute of these de­bates live. I’m re­ly­ing on Fix the Debt.

The per­sonal anec­dote is that I’ve been a ques­tioner sev­eral times for AETN’S tele­vised de­bates here in Arkansas, so I can sym­pa­thize with the peo­ple I’m now crit­i­ciz­ing.

It’s some­what of a hope­less task. As a ques­tioner, you want to ask some­thing that forces the can­di­dates to ad­dress dif­fi­cult is­sues they’d rather ig­nore. Un­for­tu­nately, you can’t make a per­son an­swer a ques­tion. Even if they do, it’s of­ten easy to say the right things and then move on to the next topic.

Also, I’ve been crit­i­cized my­self. Dur­ing the 2018 2nd District con­gres­sional de­bate, my two questions for the can­di­dates were about the na­tional debt and about im­mi­grants brought to Amer­ica as chil­dren. A prom­i­nent statewide news­pa­per colum­nist com­plained be­cause none of our six questions were about health care. That’s a fair crit­i­cism, but im­mi­gra­tion is a hot topic, too, and I’ll never apol­o­gize for ask­ing about the debt. If I’m on a panel in 2020, I’ll ask about it again.

The next Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial de­bate is Nov. 20. Many im­por­tant questions should be asked of the can­di­dates.

But surely, out of 374 and count­ing, one of them can be, “As pres­i­dent, what would you do to bal­ance the fed­eral bud­get and re­duce the na­tional debt?”

Is that too much to ask?

•••

Steve Brawner is a syn­di­cated colum­nist in Arkansas and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of The Saline Courier. Email him at brawn­er­[email protected] Fol­low him on Twit­ter @steve­brawner.

STEVE BRAWNER

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