Fiscal 'State of the Union'

Politicians won't tackle the debt until the public demands it, but the public only focuses on issues the media deems important. A Fiscal State of the Union could provide the necessary media touchstone.

Tim Sloan / AP / File
On Jan. 27, President Obama delivered the first State of the Union address of his presidency. A Fiscal State of the Union address, delivered at the turn of the fiscal year, could provide a focal point for needed discussions about long-term fiscal planning and how to address the national debt.

The President shall, by the first Tuesday in October, address a joint session of Congress on the Fiscal State of the Union.

Those words are not in the Constitution or any federal law, but they should be. The president should be called on the carpet at the beginning of every fiscal year to explain what specific steps the administration is taking to improve the fiscal health of the nation, at least until the debt reaches a sustainable level. If the administration believes that such steps would not be prudent, the president should be required to explain why.

A bipartisan blue ribbon panel proposed an annual fiscal address as part of the excellent National Academies report, Choosing the Nation’s Fiscal Future (pp. 200-201). The report lays out four paths towards a manageable debt burden (one with high taxes and high spending, another with low taxes and spending, and two intermediate scenarios). But I think its single most important recommendation is creating a modicum of presidential accountability.

Why would a presidential speech accomplish what several blue ribbon panels and much handwringing in the wonkisphere have not?

Because a presidential speech to a joint session of Congress is a big deal. The president’s report on the state of the union, mandated by the Constitution, only became a major news event when President Wilson decided to deliver it in person. Now the weeks preceding the State of the Union Address produce a flood of news stories about what the president might or might not announce, abetted by strategic leaks from the White House, and even some analysis of the actual state of the union. The speech itself is covered live on network and cable television and analyzed and reported upon for several days after delivery. It becomes a focal point for discussion of the administration’s accomplishments and failures, as well as a chance for the opposition to publicize its point of view.

It is news and it captures the public’s attention, at least for a while.

The problem with our fiscal challenges is that they aren’t news. We have a large unsustainable debt burden, just like we did yesterday and the day before and will have tomorrow. It’s news when we run exceptionally high deficits, as we have for the last couple of years, or when we achieve surpluses, as we did briefly at the end of the Clinton Administration. But there’s no event that captures the media’s and the public’s attention, and the problem will only grow worse as giant deficits become old news. There’s little chance for the media to educate the public about the debt and possible solutions.

An annual Fiscal State of the Union Address would change that. There would be news coverage. There would be serious discussion of the causes, consequences, and possible remedies to the problem of too much debt. There would be pressure on the president to have some good news to announce as part of the speech, and enough media scrutiny to guarantee that it wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. There would be pressure on the opposition to put forward a coherent plan to do better than the president, not just warmed over rhetoric and platitudes.

Politicians will never seriously address the debt until the public demands that they do so, but the public only focuses on an issue when the media signals that it is important. The Fiscal State of the Union would become a media event and focus the public’s attention. It might not be the solution, but it’s a start.

Happy Fiscal New Year.

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