By Judd Gregg and Ed Rendell
All the hyperbole and media coverage around the presidential debates usually make it difficult to objectively grade the candidates' performances and their proposals.
This year, however, is different. One issue in particular — America's out-of-control national debt — looms over all others as the indispensable reference point for sizing up the discussion at Thursday's vice presidential debate in Danville.
Pick your issue: jobs, health care, taxes, the environment, infrastructure, trade or any other. No matter which topic is most important to you, and no matter whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, there is really only one question you should be asking yourself as you listen to the candidates during the debate: How can we afford to face any of these challenges if we don't first address the national debt?
Our debt currently stands at $16 trillion and is spiraling skyward with no brakes. Leaders from both parties have so far avoided discussing the issue substantively in the midst of the 2012 election. The candidates pay enough lip service to the debt to try to show that they take the problem seriously, but the lack of details being discussed make it seem like a far-off problem.
The debt is not a far-off problem, though. It is one that is already affecting Americans and businesses in everyday life.
The longer-term challenge of bringing down the debt is preceded by a budget obstacle facing us at the end of this year. Both of these problems must be solved, and we must act now.
The fiscal cliff, an abrupt and ill-conceived mix of mandatory spending cuts and tax increases to which members of Congress agreed in an unsuccessful attempt to force a debt deal last year, is approaching in January.
While going over the cliff would make a big dent in our national debt, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said it would also throw the nation back into recession, contracting the economy on an annual basis by as much as 3.9 perecent in the first quarter of 2013.
And yet, eliminating the fiscal cliff without replacing it with a gradual, thoughtful approach to debt reduction doesn't solve our fiscal problems either.
Moody's Investor Service, one of the major ratings agencies with huge influence in the private market, has said the U.S. could lose its sterling AAA credit rating if the cliff is not avoided in a way that shows real, substantive progress on controlling the debt.
The business community, which fears our leaders will not act to avoid catastrophe, is already reacting to the dual threats of abrupt changes in January on one hand and rising debt on the other. As the New York Times noted recently, "A rising number of manufacturers are canceling new investments and putting off new hires because they fear paralysis in Washington will force hundreds of billions in tax increases and budget cuts in January.''
Consumers are getting hit too, and the consequences of inaction will squeeze them even further. The debt load will empty more and more resources out of the private market, resources that should be available for businesses to expand and invest and for consumers to purchase new homes and other items. The debt and the yearly trillion-plus interest bills we will have to pay down the road will also take resources away from other federal projects, such as transportation investments, a strong national defense and other critical programs.
And if nothing is done, the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond yields could hit 7 percent, causing home mortgage rates to hit 10 percent and car loans to hit 13 percent.
To calm rating agency jitters and business community uncertainty, Congress must address the fiscal cliff in a way that makes reasonable down payments on the debt immediately and plots a longer-term, gradual path to decreasing it further as the economy improves.
That's the best of both worlds: no fiscal cliff in January and a debt trajectory that is under control.
We encourage the debate-watching public to focus sharply on whether the candidates put forward real, concrete plans to bring down the debt. This is not about political party or scoring partisan points. It is about our shared future. We must all work together to get this done.
Judd Gregg, a Republican, represented New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate from 1993 to 2011. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, was governor of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2011. They are co-chairs of the Campaign to Fix the Debt.