I am a military veteran, a local legislator and the CEO of a company that works with the Department of Defense. I deeply understand the virtue of sacrifice, the benefit of a hard-won compromise and the dire situation that our national debt and the "fiscal cliff" present to our economy and to our national security.
I am reminded of the words my grandfather used to tell me: that when we are unable to change a situation, we must change ourselves. This is especially true today as the United States is awash in debt and our economy is hurtling toward perhaps the most inelegant deficit solution in the history of the republic: the combination of massive tax increases and spending cuts that make up the so-called fiscal cliff.
It's difficult to comprehend how America has managed to accumulate $16 trillion worth of debt, but that is currently where we stand. Our debt is unsustainable, and it endangers the capital markets. The debt is a threat to the public programs that provide comfort to the sick, the elderly and the poor. The debt threatens our place as the world's superpower.
As of this writing, we owe $4 trillion to countries around the world like China and Saudi Arabia — more money than the federal government spends in a year. This will make maintaining our position as a global power nearly impossible. Additionally, the United States spent $454 billion on interest on the debt last year alone — more than on education, housing, transportation and agriculture combined.
I am a proud Democrat, and I am certain our debt is crowding out funding for the programs I strongly support. The debt jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of our Medicare and Medicaid obligations and threatens the welfare of thousands of Americans living in or near poverty. That's unacceptable. But if you are a Republican, the debt threatens your favored programs as well, such as maintaining a strong military or keeping tax rates low.
The national debt is a long-term problem, but the country faces a more immediate peril. The drastic measures scheduled to take place Jan. 1 total $600 billion in the first year alone and threaten to hurt millions of Americans. Should we fail to avert the fiscal cliff, our economy will contract by an annual basis of almost 4 percent in the first quarter next year, likely resulting in a double-dip recession.
The fiscal cliff is also capable of doing tremendous harm to small businesses. Today, I am holding off on hiring and capital investment. The blind cuts the fiscal cliff would trigger are short-sighted and would gravely affect mission-critical programs in the Defense Department, with whom I do business. Our country depends on this funding as matter of national security, and eliminating these resources is not only dangerous — it's un-American.
The problems we face are clear. Our leaders in both parties must lead. President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are good Americans, and I have faith they will compromise in the name of moving America forward. I know they can agree on a plan that reins in spending, raises revenue and reforms entitlements.
But Washington, for all its power, cannot tackle these issues alone. Several months ago, I was asked by a group of national leaders on the federal budget to join their ranks in an effort to persuade Congress to compromise on issues relating to our national debt. The Campaign to Fix the Debt was founded by the chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican, and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, a Democrat.
The campaign seeks to place America on a more sustainable economic course by ensuring leadership has the support it needs to address our country's short- and long-term fiscal challenges. I have given them my support, and I would urge you to do the same by visiting FixTheDebt.org to sign the campaign's citizens' petition that has more than 300,000 signatures to date.
Our debt is a serious problem that we cannot afford to neglect any longer. I know that we are capable of setting aside our differences for the greater good of our country. Join me as we set out to make the nation stronger. Join me as we fix the debt.
Jamie Benoit, a Democrat and member of the Anne Arundel County Council, is the CEO of Federal Data Systems Inc. and a member of the steering committee of the Maryland chapter of the Campaign to Fix the Debt.