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Published November 12 2010

Conrad: Deficit reality looms for nation

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad warned Thursday the solutions necessary to fix the nation’s staggering fiscal problems are “not going to be popular.”

Federal leaders can no longer deny the seriousness of the problem, and a “bold” plan is required to fix it, Conrad said.

The North Dakota Democrat is one of 18 members of the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission, which is tasked with finding the answers to resolving the country’s staggering debt and out-of-control spending practices.

The commission’s co-chairmen – Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson – released an initial proposal Wednesday to mixed reaction from both sides of the aisle over the daring possibilities it contained.

“They have outlined a course that is aggressive, but it has to be in order to get our budget under control,” Conrad said.

The proposal serves as the basis for negotiations and calls for cutting a variety of popular tax breaks, reducing the annual cost-of-living increase for Social Security recipients and raising the retirement age to 69 by 2075, among other potential solutions.

Conrad acknowledged some of the ideas would be hard for Americans to swallow, but drastic measures are required, he said.

“You read the report that the two chairmen put out: my goodness, every page has got pain on it,” he said. “But that pain is nothing compared to the pain we’re going to experience if we don’t face up to this problem.”

The commission members have until Dec. 1 to agree on a final plan to submit for the president’s consideration. Agreement among at least 14 of the 18 members is required.

Conrad said he is more supportive of some provisions than others.

For instance, he said he’s concerned about the idea of cutting farm support by 20 percent – especially when farm programs pay for themselves and don’t add to the national debt.

He said reducing support also would disadvantage American farmers, compared to European producers that already receive higher amounts of government aid.

Additionally, a severe reduction in tax breaks as a means to gain revenue “strikes me as probably going too far,” Conrad said, adding that he’d like some of the tax breaks to remain in place.

As for Social Security, Conrad acknowledged the chairmen’s plans would mean reduced benefits for recipients. However, he said, the impact on individuals would be minimal.

“They’re pretty modest changes,” Conrad said. “But, modest changes over time make a big difference.”

“You’re going to have to cut spending, even on things that are very popular,” he added.

Conrad said he favors reducing excessive military spending, such as in expensive overhead costs that were pinpointed by the Department of Defense.

For his own part, Conrad proposes bringing in additional revenue by going after individuals and businesses that don’t pay their required taxes.

He said the final solutions will require “tough, controversial” decisions.

“We are borrowing 40 cents on every dollar that we spend. That cannot continue, so we gotta face up to it,” Conrad said. “Anybody that says, ‘Oh, you don’t have to touch entitlement programs,’ they’re not telling people the truth.”

“Anybody that tells you, ‘You don’t have to touch revenue’ – they’re not telling people the truth.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541