PhillyDeals: Temple crowd hears case for tackling U.S. debt

The "$10 Million a Minute Tour" bus - carrying speakers from the group named after therate of growth of the nation's debt - is parked at Temple University.
The "$10 Million a Minute Tour" bus - carrying speakers from the group named after therate of growth of the nation's debt - is parked at Temple University. (JOSEPH DiSTEFANO / Staff)
Posted: September 13, 2012

David M. Walker, the federal government's top accountant in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, wants to put the nation on a tight budget, one in which spending equals income, and all the relentless borrowing just stops.

It's time, Walker, former U.S. comptroller general, told a crowd that jammed an upstairs conference room at Temple University on Tuesday: Time to stop "stupid" federal promises of unlimited medical, education, and military spending, the many extra billions that don't make Americans healthier, smarter, or safer than people in other advanced countries.

It's good, says Walker, that President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are talking more about the multitrillion-dollar debt they say threatens hiring and growth, which their predecessors mostly ignored.

But Congress is still jammed, unwilling to cut spending or boost taxes nearly enough to balance the books. And accountant talk isn't moving the masses fast enough to suit Walker or his corporate allies.

So he's not preaching alone. It was ex-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's turn to join the $10 Million a Minute Express, the bus that Walker's current organization, the Comeback America Initiative, sent to Temple and Penn on Tuesday.

Walker's board includes the former heads of Lockheed Martin, Hewlett-Packard, and the Service Employees International Union, among others. The goal, Walker says, is to pressure "centrist" politicians in both parties to defy conservative no-new- taxes pledges as well as labor-backed pledges not to cut Social Security, pension guarantees, or Medicare.

"This is not rocket science," the gravel-voiced Rendell told the Temple crowd filling an upstairs hall at the Fox Business School. The "trick" is to cut government losses while still "putting Americans back to work" by using private finance to fix roads and bridges, ports, and airports and the crumbling, increasingly Third World-style U.S. public services.

That agenda matches Rendell's largely frustrated program in his last years as governor, and fits his current part-time gig as a Greenhill & Co. investment banker seeking to privately finance public projects that governments can no longer afford.

Rendell agreed that the campaign matches his personal agenda - "no question" - but it's also a "labor of love," he told me. He buys Walker's too-much- debt-is-doom argument, which Rendell heard when both crossed paths as commentators on CNBC. "David is one of the brightest, most courageous persons in government," he said.

It's tough keeping track of this Washington-based reform-Washington movement: Rendell is cochairman of another high-powered, corporate-backed government-reform nonprofit, the Campaign to Fix the Debt, which is aligned with a group backed by ex-Sen. Alan Simpson (R., Wyo.) and ex-Clinton aide Erskine Bowles, who headed an abortive initiative to address spending and taxes in the last Congress.

Rendell says that campaign is raising a multimillion-dollar corporate war chest to back members of Congress from both parties who support sensible spending cuts and tax hikes, starting in the midterm 2014 elections. (Rendell also warned that Pennsylvania isn't as safe for Obama as some Democrats seem to think.)

Walker criticized Romney and Obama for failing to detail their reform programs. It's time, Walker and Rendell said, to start limiting Medicare and Social Security to folks older than their mid-60s. Time to end tax breaks for rich investors' capital gains, private investment funds, and corporate dividends.

Walker wants to continue tax deductions for charity, which he says will be needed as the government cuts more services to the poor. He would stop mortgage deductions for second homes and mansions, while keeping deductions on most owner-occupied homes. He would keep incentives for retirement plans, while making the money harder to withdraw early.

Rendell called for an end to Obama's 2 percent Social Security payroll tax break, which he said has failed to persuade employers to hire more workers. Walker wants low-wage Americans to pay at least some income tax, besides Social Security. He and Rendell say the nation can cut its top tax rates if we plug more "loopholes."

Is this really the making of a grassroots political movement? "We've had Walker on our program. The tea party crowd adores him" when he criticizes government, Steve Cordasco, head of Center City-based Cordasco Financial Network and host of a weekend financial radio program in Philadelphia, told me as the Temple crowd broke up.

But when they start thinking about what government cuts "mean to them personally - well, it makes for great radio," he added, smiling.


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano

at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, and @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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