Fiscal imperative: Oversight, insight and foresight


Around Farm and Dairy, it pays to listen to Rilla Gruber.

Gruber is Farm and Dairy’s comptroller and you might think that’s just a fancy name for an accountant, but Gruber does more than make sure numbers add up. She has an eye on long-term trends and does her best to make sure we’re in a good position to weather storms.

Comptrollers are good people to have around, and it pays to listen to them.

I came home from Washington D.C. last week with the wish that more people would listen to David Walker.

Walker just stepped down as the comptroller general of the U.S. and head of the Government Accountability Office, where he was intimate with long-term budget problems facing the government. Facing us.
This is what he’s saying: “We cannot afford to continue business as usual in Washington, given our current deficit and growing long-term fiscal challenges.”

The net operating cost of the federal government is a deficit of $450 billion, Walker reports, and he’s equally concerned about growing liabilities and unfunded commitments, like Medicare benefits. In the last six years, the estimated total of these “accumulating burdens” went from about $20 trillion to about $50 trillion, numbers that are incomprehensible.

He also points out most of the federal government’s policies and programs are rooted in decades-old conditions and are out of touch with today’s realities. “Sixty-one percent of the government is on autopilot,” Walker observes. It’s time for a major overhaul.

We spend $2.5 trillion to $3 trillion a year, but never ask “what are we trying to accomplish?” or “what’s our priority?” or “how do we measure success?”

Unfortunately, Walker’s voice is drowned out by the clamor for more, more, more, even as he took his show on the road on what he called the “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour.”

Here’s his plan: First, the U.S. needs to improve transparency of financial reporting and budgeting. Second, we need to institute “meaningful” budget controls and strengthen those controls. And third, we need to reform entitlement programs, reprioritize the base of spending, and work for comprehensive tax reform that won’t stymie economic growth, but will raise more revenues.

“We’re eating our seed corn and mortgaging our future,” Walker said last March.

It doesn’t take a comptroller to figure it out: We’re living beyond our means and a crunch is coming.

We need leaders on local, state and federal levels to work together and make tough decisions. We need better management, better judgment and better direction. We need political will. We need results, not rhetoric.

We need, as Walker stresses, oversight, insight and foresight.

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