The News is Bad…And Getting Worse

If Diogenes were stumbling about Washington with his lantern looking for an honest man, sooner or later he would bump into David Walker.

Walker, who wears monogrammed shirts and takes his children on cruises, is comptroller general of the United States, the official auditor of the federal government, and runs the Government Accountability Office. What he has to say will make your hair stand on end.

(Warning: This is not beach reading.)

The United States is reaching a “demographic tsunami” as baby boomers retire, for which it still is totally unprepared.

Nobody knows how the Pentagon is spending $1 billion a week in Iraq. The Department of Defense has “absolutely atrocious financial management. If it were a business, it would be out of business.”

The federal government’s long-term liabilities and unfunded obligations now total $45 trillion, or $365,000 for every worker. In one year, long-term liabilities rose by $13 trillion, mainly because of the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit. In contrast, the federal government’s entire annual budget is $2.5 trillion.

Last year, the government’s operating deficit was $567 billion. Only about $100 billion of that was from the war on terror and homeland security.

In 35 years, it is “entirely plausible that the federal government could be reduced to doing little more than paying interest on the national debt.”

Aside from current retirees and those about to retire, most Americans are going to get more than they expect from Social Security, but not what they were promised. Yet Social Security is only 8 percent of the long-range structural imbalance in the nation’s finances.

Dealing with rising health-care costs for an aging population’s health is the single biggest challenge to U.S. global competitiveness. But crumbling roads and bridges, energy issues and a rapidly rising deficit also endanger national security.

Walker is imminently qualified to say these things and be heeded. He is the seventh comptroller general and has a 15-year term of office, which began at the end of 1998. The independent GAO is the financial analyst for Congress (as an institution, not political parties) and the people of the United States. Before going to the GAO, he began his career as a certified public accountant and has been a Medicare and Social Security trustee, an assistant labor secretary responsible for pension and welfare programs, and acting director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

He does not make policy, but he raises red flags _ a NASCAR track full of red flags. His job, he says, is to make reports to the nation that are professional, fact-based, nonpartisan, non-ideological, fair and balanced.

He does not mince words. In a recent speech, he said, “One of the biggest problems in Washington today is the continuing unwillingness of public officials to look to the future, recognize reality and make difficult policy choices. Unfortunately, time is working against us. The miracle of compounding works against you when you’re a debtor.”

(The United States is no longer the world’s biggest creditor; it is now the world’s biggest debtor.)

Walker became unusually well known for a comptroller general when he and Vice President Dick Cheney mixed it up over Walker’s request for Cheney’s energy task force records. Cheney refused; Walker took him to court, the first time the GAO ever sued a federal official. (The Supreme Court last month refused to order the Bush administration to make the records public, but sent the case back to a lower court.)

“I just want the truth. The truth and the facts,” Walker says.

Walker’s GAO is independent. He has never sat down with George W. Bush since he’s been president, but he meets regularly with top officials throughout government and says he has never gotten a complaint from an administration official or a member of Congress.

An hour with Walker, socially pleasant as he can be, is cause for nail-biting worry about our future. (He says he doesn’t talk of the country’s myopia about solving long-term problems at cocktail parties.) He is matter-of-fact, quick with figures and frustrated that so many problems are being shelved for tomorrow.

He is also full of solutions _ reinstate budget reforms, set pay-as-you-go rules, be realistic about long-term ramifications of spending and set a national strategic plan based on what works and what doesn’t, because “we don’t have a clue about whether we’re really making progress” with regard to how other nations are preparing for the future.

Yet, he says, “believe it or not, I’m an optimist. I’m an American. We’ve had much greater challenges in our history, and we met them.”

(Ann McFeatters is Washington bureau chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Toledo Blade. E-mail amcfeatters(at)