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United States Government Accountability Office: GAO: 

Presentation by: 
the Honorable David M. Walker: 
Comptroller General of the United States: 

Keeping America Great: Doing Your Part: 

University of Montana: 
Presidential Lecture Series 2007-2008: Missoula, Montana: 

October 9, 2007: 

GAO-08-178CG: 

President Dennison, distinguished members of the faculty, students, 
ladies, and gentlemen. It is an honor to be with you this evening and I 
thank you for giving me this opportunity to address you.

Lately, I've been speaking out about our nation's future. During the 
past two years, I have traveled to 22 states as part of the Fiscal Wake-
up Tour. In addition, I've appeared on a number of major radio and 
television programs this year to talk about the growing fiscal 
challenge facing America. You may have seen me on the CBS news program 
60 Minutes or on Comedy Central's Colbert Report. The facts don't 
change during these appearances, but the means and messages do, 
depending on the venue and target audience.

The agency that I have the honor to lead--the Government Accountability 
Office, or GAO--is in the truth and transparency business. Or as 
Stephen Colbert would say, we're all about combating "truthiness." As 
the so-called "investigative arm of Congress," GAO is in the oversight, 
insight, and foresight business. We "speak truth to power," and we try 
to make government work better and for the benefit of all Americans.

In my view, it's important to state the facts and speak the truth to 
the American people in connection with our fiscal situation and other 
important public policy issues. Too many television and radio programs 
today are essentially "fact-free zones," full of opinion, ideological 
rhetoric, and partisan spin. In America, we believe in free speech. As 
a result, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion but not his or her 
own facts. The facts are neither blue nor red. In reality, facts are 
colorless and should be transparent.

Today, I'm pleased and honored to spend a few minutes speaking to you 
on the importance of keeping America great. I firmly believe that each 
of us can play a part to help ensure that our individual and collective 
future is better than our past. After all, our nation's future is what 
you and I and our fellow citizens make of it. That why our constitution 
starts with the words "we the people."

From a personal perspective, while the Walker family has been in 
America since the late 1600s, to my knowledge, I'm only the second 
person in my Walker line to have graduated from college. Before my 
father, most of the Walkers were mineworkers, farmers, or ministers. 
Despite my family's modest beginnings, I now have the good fortune of 
being the seventh Comptroller General of the United States and head of 
the GAO. Only in America!

From a broader perspective, clearly America is a great country, 
possibly the greatest in history. We've risen from one of many colonies 
ruled by England to become the world's only current superpower. We're 
the longest-standing republic on earth and a beacon of liberty for the 
rest of the world. Those Americans like myself who have traveled 
extensively overseas know that while our country is far from perfect, 
in general, we have it pretty good today. Yes, Americans have much to 
be proud of and much to be thankful for.

America is number one in many things but not all things. As a result, 
while Americans have a right to be proud, we should never be arrogant. 
Unfortunately, the world has seen more than a little American arrogance 
of late, both domestically and internationally. This must change. After 
all, whether we're talking about safeguarding public health, protecting 
the environment, or combating international terrorism, the United 
States can't go it alone. We're going to have to partner for progress 
on these and other types of issues, which have no geopolitical 
boundaries.

Let there be no doubt, America's true strength is its people. America 
is a very diverse nation, and our diversity is a great asset--an asset 
we have yet to fully capitalize on. Despite our diversity, we Americans 
are united by our belief in equal opportunity. Through perseverance and 
hard work, any of us can achieve a better life. Our love of freedom is 
equaled only by our devotion to faith and family.

While America is a great nation, we face a range of large and growing 
sustainability challenges that too few policymakers are taking 
seriously. In so many areas--fiscal policy, foreign policy, health 
care, education, energy, the environment, immigration, our 
infrastructure, and Iraq--we're on an unsustainable path. I'll briefly 
touch on three of these areas to prove my point.

First, since America's most valuable asset is its people, I'll start 
with education. The United States now has the best higher education 
system in the world. Most of you are the beneficiaries of that system. 
Unfortunately, we're not even in the top 20 nations in math and science 
scores at the high-school level. This represents a huge problem in a 
knowledge-based economy. If our country expects to maintain its 
standard of living, we're going to have to stay competitive on measures 
like savings, investment, innovation, productivity, and product 
quality. Fixing our K-12 education system will require radical reform 
and concerted efforts by all levels of government and all sectors of 
our economy. We must move beyond rhetoric and start delivering real 
results for a broader spectrum of the American population.

The second sustainability challenge is our nation's fiscal outlook. 
While short-term federal deficits are coming down, we face large and 
growing longer-range deficits and debt burdens due primarily to the 
retirement of the baby boom generation and rising health care costs. 
The retirement of the boomers will begin in less than three months, and 
when boomers begin to retire en masse it will bring a tsunami of 
spending that could swamp our ship of state--and yet we are not 
prepared!

The fact is that in the coming decades, unless we change our current 
policies, there simply aren't going to be enough full-time workers to 
promote strong economic growth or to sustain existing entitlement 
programs. Like most industrialized nations, the United States will have 
fewer full-time workers paying taxes and contributing to federal social 
insurance programs. At the same time, growing numbers of retirees will 
be claiming their Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits.

Most of today's retirees will live far longer and spend more years in 
retirement than their parents and grandparents. In a nutshell, the 
retirement of the baby boomers, and I'm one of them, is going to put 
unprecedented demands on both our public and private pension and health 
care systems. At the same time, American companies are cutting back the 
retirement benefits they're offering to workers. To live well during 
our "golden years," all of us, even you, are going to have to plan 
better, save more, invest more wisely, and resist the temptation to 
spend those funds before we retire.

As a result of known demographic trends and escalating health care 
costs, America faces decades of escalating red ink. The facts on this 
aren't in question. Given our worsening financial outlook, the 
government's recent spending sprees and deep tax cuts are nothing less 
than a body blow to overall fiscal responsibility.

Thanks to a combination of increased federal spending, several major 
tax cuts, and an expansion of the Medicare program, federal budget 
deficits have returned with a vengeance. Depending on which accounting 
method you use, the federal deficit in fiscal 2006 ranged from $248 
billion to $450 billion.

While these annual deficit numbers get a lot of press coverage, it's 
the federal government's mounting liabilities and unfunded commitments 
that pose the real threats. I'm talking about things like unfunded 
Social Security and Medicare benefits. Between fiscal year 2000 and 
fiscal year 2006 alone, the estimated cost of these accumulating 
burdens has soared from about $20 trillion to about $50 trillion--and 
this number is going up $2 trillion or $3 trillion a year on autopilot.

Let me put it this way: Our government has made a whole lot of promises 
that, in the long run, it can't possibly keep. And here's why. Fifty 
trillion dollars translates into an IOU of about $440,000 for every 
American household. Keep in mind that the median household income in 
this country is less than $50,000 a year. For the typical family, it's 
like having a mortgage that's 9 times their annual income. And that 
mortgage doesn't even come with a house! This burden is rapidly 
outpacing the net worth of most Americans and the growth rate of our 
economy.

Further, the savings rate among U.S. consumers has been falling for 
some time and we've returned to savings levels not seen since the 
depths of the Great Depression. In fact, America has among the lowest 
overall savings rates of any major industrialized nation. Clearly, many 
Americans, like their federal government, are living beyond their 
means. This trend is particularly alarming in an aging society like 
ours. Our low savings rates also mean that we are increasingly relying 
on foreign investors to finance our debt. This is not a prudent course 
over the longer term.

So where do we stand on addressing this issue? Earlier this month, the 
President signed a congressional bill to raise the nation's debt limit. 
This was the fifth raise in the last 5  years, and the current debt 
ceiling is now about $9.8 trillion. Yes, I said trillion! While 
congressional and public debate on this issue is understandable and 
appropriate, it's time that we started treating the disease rather than 
merely debating the symptoms. This country has been diagnosed with 
fiscal cancer. This cancer can be cured with tough choices, but it will 
get worse over time if our elected officials fail to act. This fiscal 
cancer is manifested in large operating deficits and growing long-range 
fiscal imbalances. It is perpetuated by a lack of meaningful statutory 
budget controls, a very large and growing percentage of the budget that 
is on autopilot, a failure to pursue performance-based approaches in 
connection with major spending programs and the tax preferences, and a 
variety of other current practices. These conditions are inappropriate 
and unsustainable. Hopefully, a capable, credible, and bipartisan 
commission or task force will be formed to "set the operating table" 
for the next President and the next Congress in connection with these 
and other important matters.

To help save our future, we must impose tough budget controls; reform 
Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; and reprioritize and constrain 
other spending. We also need to engage in comprehensive tax reform that 
will not undercut our economic growth or competitive advantage while 
raising additional revenues. We must do all of these things, and the 
sooner the better because time is working against us and our debt clock 
is ticking. Fortunately, there are several bills pending in Congress 
now to create a task force or commission to address the issue of fiscal 
sustainability and intergenerational equity. No matter what form or 
organization such a group would take, it should have a statutory basis, 
be bipartisan, involve leaders from both the executive and legislative 
branches, and require a super-majority vote for any recommendations to 
be sent to the President and the Congress. It should also require an 
expeditious and up or down vote in the Congress. In addition, its 
primary objective should be to make the tough choices necessary to keep 
America great, and to help make sure that our country's, our 
children's, and our grandchildren's future is better than our past. 
Hopefully, these congressional bills will be given serious and timely 
consideration by the Congress and the President.

Many young people think that Social Security won't be around when they 
retire, but they're wrong. It will be reformed, and hopefully sooner 
rather than later. Our real problem is Medicare, Medicaid, and health 
care, in general, and this is the last of the three sustainability 
challenges I will touch on today.

While demographic trends are a major contributor to our longer-range 
fiscal challenge, the biggest contributor is health care costs. The 
plain but simple truth is that our health care system is badly broken. 
We're now number one in the world in health care spending and obesity-
-facts that don't bode well for our wallets or our waistlines. Health 
care spending continues to far outpace the rate of real economic 
growth. Despite spending huge amounts on medical care, the United 
States has above average infant mortality, below average life 
expectancy, and much higher than average medical error rates for an 
industrialized nation. We also have the largest percentage of uninsured 
individuals of any major nation. It's pretty clear we're not getting 
very good value for our health care dollars. Frankly, if there's one 
thing that could bankrupt America, it's health care costs. 

Comprehensive health care reform will probably need to occur in 
installments over a number of years. Our goals should be fourfold: 
First, provide universal access to basic and essential health care. 
Second, impose limits on federal spending for health care. Third, 
implement national evidence-based medical practice standards to improve 
quality, control costs, and reduce litigation risks while avoiding 
heroic measures. And finally, take steps to ensure that all Americans 
assume more personal responsibility and accountability for their own 
health and wellness.

One thing is clear: Young people will pay the price and bear the burden 
if others fail to act to address our mounting fiscal burden and other 
sustainability challenges. More importantly, I'm talking about these 
challenges here at the University of Montana because the students 
enrolled in this program are likely to become the some of the future 
leaders of our country! As a result, you and your peers are our 
greatest hope for bringing about change.

Unfortunately, many institutions and individuals in America today 
suffer from several afflictions: myopia, tunnel vision, and self- 
centeredness--just to name three. Too many people are focused on the 
word "me" rather than the word "we." Too many people are focused on 
what they want today rather than what they need to do to help ensure a 
better future. And too many people are focused on their own narrow 
interests rather than the greater good. Furthermore, too many elected 
officials suffer from "mural dyslexia" or the inability to read the 
handwriting on the wall.

Ignorance, apathy, and arrogance can be fatal when it comes to a nation 
and its people. The Roman Republic provided us with some important 
lessons in this regard over 1,500 years ago.

Let us not forget, the Roman Republic fell for many reasons, but three 
seem to resonate today. First, a decline in moral values and political 
civility at home. Second, an overconfident and overextended military in 
foreign lands. Third, fiscal irresponsibility by the central 
government. Sound familiar? We must learn from history and make sure 
that we are the first republic to stand the test of time.

In our constitutional democracy, it's "we the people" who are 
ultimately responsible and accountable for what does or does not happen 
in the capitals around our country. As a result, all of us must be 
informed and involved in order to make a difference. We must not 
forget, God put each of us on this earth to serve our fellow man and to 
make a difference for others.

For those of you who are students, are early in your career, or even 
those of you who are more seasoned, as you look to the future, each of 
you needs to search your head and your heart to decide how you're going 
to make a difference on this earth. This is one of life's most 
important decisions. When you search your head and heart in your 
pursuit of happiness, don't forget your communities, your country and 
your fellow man. To help build a better future, I ask that each of you 
dedicate at least two years of your life to serving others.

When you consider your public service options, remember that the U.S. 
government is the largest, the most diverse, and, arguably, the most 
important entity on the face of the earth. We need top talent in the 
federal government to successfully address our many sustainability 
challenges. Yes, the federal government needs men and women with skills 
in public affairs, business, and other fields from top universities 
like the University of Montana.

I also ask that each of you become more informed about the issues 
facing our nation and more involved in demanding change. It's time we 
held current and prospective elected officials accountable for 
upholding their fiduciary and stewardship responsibilities to our 
country and its citizens.

You may be saying to yourself, "What can one person do?" One person 
clearly can make a difference in today's world. My favorite 20th 
century president, Theodore Roosevelt, is proof of that. TR, as he's 
often called, was someone with character, conscience, and conviction.

TR began his life as a sickly child, and the loss of his mother and 
first wife shook him to the core. Nonetheless, he recovered and became 
our nation's 26th and youngest president. TR was an optimist who firmly 
believed in the potential of government to improve the life of every 
citizen. As a trustbuster, TR took on some of the nation's more 
powerful and ethically challenged corporate interests. And he won. As 
an environmentalist, TR left us with a legacy of great national parks 
like Yosemite. As an internationalist, he led peace talks to end the 
Russo-Japanese War. In fact, TR is the only American to have won both 
the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize.

TR firmly believed that it was every American's responsibility to be 
active in our civic life. As he said, "Fighting for the right [cause] 
is the noblest sport the world affords." Democracy is hard work but 
it's work worth doing. And that's really at the heart of my message 
tonight. How America looks in the future is largely up to us. It's you, 
I, and our fellow citizens who are ultimately responsible for what does 
or does not happen in Washington.

In closing, in addition to reflecting over the presidency of TR, I've 
also been studying the life of George Washington, particularly his two 
terms as President. What's often overlooked is that George Washington 
was a great believer in fiscal discipline. In his farewell address in 
1796, Washington spoke to the issue of public debt. He urged the new 
nation to avoid "ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which 
we ourselves ought to bear." This advice is as sound today as it was 
over 200 years ago. By ignoring George Washington's words of wisdom and 
postponing difficult policy decisions, our government is, in fact, 
making a choice--a choice with unacceptable fiscal and ethical 
consequences.

We can and must do better than the path of least resistance. The road 
less traveled won't always be easy, but it's a journey that our 
children, grandchildren, and future generations of Americans will thank 
us for taking. I hope you'll join with me in stating the facts, 
speaking the truth, and acting to help save our collective future.

All of you should find your cause in life and fight to make a 
difference. I'll continue to try and do my part. All that I ask is that 
you do your best to do your part to keep America great. We can, we 
must, and, with your help, we will do what it takes to keep America 
great!:

May God bless each of you, the University of Montana, and the United 
States of America.

[End of presentation] 

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