When Congress reconvenes next week, Democrats and Republicans will need "a fundamental change" in how they spend and borrow money to tame the growing federal debt, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said Friday.
During a town hall meeting sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Republican and former Chattanooga mayor said Congress needs to slow the rate of spending on entitlements such as Social Security, cut military contracts at the Pentagon and phase out many domestic programs and tax breaks.
"Our debt is getting out of control and, as a result, we are having to borrow a growing share of our money from foreign sources that may have different interests than us," Corker told hundreds of constituents gathered in an auditorium at Chattanooga State Community College and more who watched an online broadcast of his presentation.
Corker said the U.S. debt has more than doubled in the past decade. Without a change in Washington's ways, it could reach nearly 11/2 times the annual output of the U.S. economy and threaten the nation's financial security, he said.
But he stopped short of endorsing spending cuts outlined this week by the leaders of a bipartisan deficit reduction commission appointed by President Barack Obama.
Corker said he was encouraged by many of the commission's ideas to limit tax deductions, trim federal spending and make long-term changes in Social Security to help ensure its solvency.
"I think the report is a good start, but that is not to say that I agree with everything that is in it," Corker said.
He said he plans to introduce a bill in the next month to set the government's spending limit as a share of the nation's gross domestic spending and require Congress to stay below that level or risk automatic cuts in federal programs.
"Right now it's a nine-page bill, which I know isn't much by Washington standards," he joked.
The deficit commission proposes to cut the $13.7 trillion debt by $4 trillion and to pare government spending from 24 percent of gross domestic product in fiscal 2010 to 21 percent by 2037.
The commission is looking at eliminating $1.2 trillion in tax deductions, including home mortgage interest; raising the retirement age to 69 by 2075; cutting the size of the federal work force by 10 percent and military spending by $100 billion a year; and raising the federal gas tax by 15 cents a gallon.
"I appreciate the fact that the commission has been bold and I hope it will help people see that we have a short amount of time to deal with this issue," Corker said.
Corker said he wants even more spending cuts and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, which could require spending $6.7 trillion less over the next decade.
One local Democrat questioned Corker's commitment to debt relief given that the senator won't support a tax increase on people with incomes above $250,000 next year to return to 1990s tax rates.
"Advocating the continuation of a tax cut for America's wealthiest earners that would contribute an additional $700 billion to our budget deficit over the next 10 years is reckless," said Joda Thongnopnua, president of the Hamilton County Young Democrats. "We need to pursue a fiscal policy that ensures the preservation of our future, not just the future of big business."
Corker said "this is no time to be raising taxes" while the economy is still recovering from the worst recession in 80 years.
Some in the town hall meeting questioned Corker's claim that Social Security needs to be revamped.
"I resent being called part of a burden on our budget," said Frank Potts, 66, of Athens, Tenn., who said he worked all his life and paid into Social Security.
Chattanooga attorney John Wolfe, a Democrat and three-time unsuccessful candidate for Congress, said the Social Security system still takes in more than it pays out.
Wolfe blamed the fiscal shortfall on President George W. Bush's decision to borrow money for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and more than $80 billion a year in defense spending.
Corker said Social Security has an unfunded liability of $8 trillion and Medicare has an unfunded liability of $37 trillion unless the programs are revamped.
Corker assured seniors that current Social Security recipients won't be hurt. But he said changes are needed for younger workers "because we need to make sure the program is solvent and protected for our children and grandchildren."
He also cautioned against simplistic answers to the looming debt crisis. Congressional earmarks, in which members of Congress secure federal funds for specific projects in their districts, are a perennial target, he said. But earmarks totaled only $16.5 billion in fiscal 2009, or less than one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. budget.
"What we need be focusing on are much, much bigger issues," he said. "If you spent six months with me in Washington, you'd be embarrassed by the way we spend money."