Drowning in Debt: What the Nation's Budget Woes Mean for You

Economists predict cutbacks and tax increases that 'aren't even imaginable.'

ByABC News
February 16, 2010, 2:48 PM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2010— -- American political and economic leaders have sounded the alarm for years about the red ink rising in reports on the federal government's fiscal health.

But now the problem of mounting national debt is worse than it ever has been before with -- potentially dire consequences for taxpayers, according to a report by the nonpartisan Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform.

"It keeps me awake at night, looking at all that red ink," said President Obama in Nashua, N.H., on Feb. 2. "Most of it is structural and we inherited it. The only way that we are going to fix it is if both parties come together and start making some tough decisions about our long-term priorities."

Obama will sign an executive order tomorrow that establishes a bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to make recommendations on how to reduce the country's debt.

Over the past year alone, the amount the U.S. government owes its lenders has grown to more than half the country's entire economic output, or gross domestic product.

Even more alarming, experts say, is that those figures will climb to an unprecedented 200 percent of GDP by 2038 without a dramatic shift in course.

"Within 12 years…the largest item in the federal budget will be interest payments on the national debt," said former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker. "[They are] payments for which we get nothing."

Economic forecasters say future generations of Americans could have a substantially lower standard of living than their predecessors' for the first time in the country's history if the debt is not brought under control.

Government debt, which fuels the risk of inflation, could make everyday Americans' savings worth less. Higher interest rates would make it harder for consumers and businesses to borrow. Wages would remain stagnant and fewer jobs would be created. The government's ability to cut taxes or provide a safety net would also be weakened, economists say.

While much attention has been focused on the government's deficit-spending surge during the recession, many economists agree short-term budget overruns -- as ominous as they may seem -- are not particularly problematic.

"What threatens the ship are large, known and growing structural deficits," said Walker, a problem that few politicians seem eager and readily able to fix.

In a recent ABC News poll, 87 percent of Americans said they are concerned about the federal budget deficit and national debt, and most strongly disapprove of how their political leaders are handling the situation.

But public dissatisfaction has not proven enough to compel members of Congress or current and previous Administrations to set aside their partisan differences to achieve a balanced budget.

Most Republicans don't want to raise taxes; most Democrats don't want to cut spending. The result is a stalemate on how to put America back in the black.