There’s one urgent issue neither candidate is seriously addressing in 2024

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Unlike most Republicans who have been critical of former President Donald Trump, former House Speaker Paul Ryan is not about to make an endorsement or even indicate he’ll grudgingly vote for Trump.

Arguing Trump is “unfit” for office, Ryan, a Republican who represented the battleground state of Wisconsin in Congress, said on Fox News this week that he’ll write in some other Republican – a conservative rather than a populist like Trump.

It was a notable moment, particularly since it occurred on Fox News, where opposition to Trump is hard to come by. Ryan, who has turned to a lucrative career on Wall Street since leaving politics, remains on the board of the conservative network’s parent company.

“I would prefer a party that is based on principles, not personality or populism,” Ryan said, describing himself as “an anti-establishment Republican at this time.”

It’s a stunning turn for Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, to be so out of whack with his party. Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee who selected Ryan as his running mate, is also now effectively a member of the shrinking Republican resistance to Trump.

A promise to do nothing

Like many Americans, Ryan said he isn’t happy with either of the major-party candidates, but he has a very specific reason for concern. It’s worth taking a closer look at his important point.

“They’re both promising not to tackle the debt,” Ryan said, coming back to the issue that has animated his political career.

“All the First World countries have the same issue we have: baby boomers retiring and unfunded entitlements coming due, and massive amount of debt,” he said, referring to Social Security and Medicare, on which millions of aging Americans rely for their quality of life but which also eat up a growing portion of federal spending.

For the record, both President Joe Biden and Trump have sworn they will not cut benefits. When Trump suggested in an interview in March that he might be open to Medicare and Social Security cuts, his campaign quickly made clear that no, he was talking about waste, not touching the programs themselves. He attacked other Republicans during the primary for being open to reforming these programs.

$34 trillion and counting

The current US national debt exceeds $34 trillion, a figure that has exploded under both parties. Pandemic-era spending had bipartisan support. Republicans passed massive tax cuts under Trump. Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan Act and Inflation Reduction Act under Biden and the Affordable Care Act under then-President Barack Obama.

Ryan is absolutely correct that neither side, at least at the presidential level, is making action on the debt a political priority.

“You can fix it if you have the political will,” Ryan said. “We don’t have the political will right now. We don’t have serious politics right now.”

Whether and exactly how concerned to be with that debt is a matter of intense debate among policy wonks and economists, but the idea that the US is on an unsustainable path is generally accepted.

More focus on tax cuts

Meanwhile, in the larger political conversation, there’s more focus on how or whether to extend Trump-era tax cuts that will expire next year. CNN’s Tami Luhby has a look at the opposing promises from Biden and Trump.

Trump wants to extend all of the tax cuts, which could further explode the debt without corresponding spending cuts.

Biden, on the other hand, wants to allow the cuts to expire only for those making $400,000 and up. He would also try raise the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%. When Trump and Republicans enacted the current tax structure, they made individual tax cuts temporary and most of the corporate tax cuts permanent.

Democrats are also hoping to use the tax debate as leverage to increase social safety net spending.

More from Luhby: Biden and some Democratic lawmakers also see the looming battle as an opportunity to revive or extend other popular but pricey tax provisions, including the enhanced child tax credit, which was in place only for 2021, and the more generous Obamacare premium subsidies, which expire at the end of next year. Both were contained in the American Rescue Plan Act that congressional Democrats pushed through Congress soon after Biden was inaugurated in 2021.

Her story – read it here – outlines more of the looming tax implications and spells out the argument that the Trump tax cuts were a huge success alongside the opposing argument that they were a total failure.

What’s not up for debate is that the debt has grown, by trillions of dollars, under both Trump and Biden.

Fearing ‘radical budget surgery’

Ryan fears a future when the Treasury Department can no longer sell the interest-bearing bonds that fund deficit spending, at which point the government would essentially have to print money to cover expenses.

“That’s when you have a dollar crisis. That’s when the dollar as the world’s reserve currency is called into question. That’s a huge privilege we could lose,” he said, arguing it would lead to “radical budget surgery” – steep, painful cuts – to get out of the crisis.

Solve the problem now or solve the problem later, he is arguing, but solving it now will be less painful.

Tough choices could come sooner than you think

Social Security won’t be able to pay full benefits as soon as 2035 unless Congress acts, according to a government forecast. Spending on the program will balloon, and the trust funds that currently fund it will run dry.

At that point, the payroll tax and other income sources that fund Social Security will only be able to pay 83% of benefits. Congress will be forced to do something.

It’s a similar story with a slightly different timeline for Medicare.

“If you step ahead of this problem, you can solve the insolvency of these entitlement programs without affecting anyone’s benefits who are on them today,” Ryan said.

The broad strokes of what needs to be done are generally known and have been suggested by a variety of commissions, foundations and economic policy groups.

The fixes could include incrementally raising the retirement age over the coming years and changing the funding structure for the systems to raise more money. Biden has proposed additional taxes on those making more than $400,000 to address Medicare’s solvency, among other ideas, but does not have a detailed Social Security plan.

Ryan has previously endorsed reform

Ryan, to his credit, proposed some of the more revolutionary changes earlier in his career. When House Republicans passed versions of those plans, he paid a political price. They arguably contributed to his and Romney’s defeat in 2012.

“The problem is, doing what I just said, you lay yourself out there for ridicule,” Ryan said on Fox. “You lay yourself out there for political shots.”

He added: “Invariably, the political demagoguery makes it look like you’re taking something away from people. The dirty little secret in all of this is, Medicare and Social Security are going insolvent on their own. That means they go bankrupt. That means current seniors do get their benefits cut if we do nothing.”

But Ryan also deserves some blame

He was House speaker, for instance, when Republicans passed those Trump tax cuts in 2017, which cut government income without addressing spending.

Ryan suggested a fix to the problem now could be a commission set up to create a path to solvency and which would be able to force a vote in Congress.

There are previous examples of such commissions, such as the one helmed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in 1983.

Ryan actually sat on another one during the Obama administration. Chaired by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, it was called the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and it sought a bipartisan menu of tough choices to deal with the unsustainable path it has been clear the US has been on for a long time.

When it came time to endorse those proposals, however, Ryan voted no, helping kill the commission.

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