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Walker: Economic mess awaits unless action is taken

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(CNN) -- The nation's top accountant has watched with growing alarm as the amount of money the country owes has skyrocketed.

"We're underwater to the tune of $50 trillion, and that number is going up three to four trillion a year on autopilot. So we need to start getting serious soon in order to make sure that our future is better than our past," David Walker, the head of the Government Accountability Office, told CNN in a recent interview.

As of March 1, 2007, the federal debt was $8.78 trillion -- $5 trillion of which was treasury bills, bonds and other securities held by entities outside the government.

The figure Walker cites includes future payments that government entitlement programs would have to pay, including $32 trillion owed by Medicare.

Federal spending on Medicare, and also Social Security and Medicaid, will increase dramatically as the programs expand to accommodate the large baby boomer population, Walker said in testimony on January 2007 before the Senate Budget Committee. The baby boomers become eligible in 2008 for Social Security and in 2011 for Medicare.

The increase in federal spending on those programs, along with rising health care costs, and a burgeoning population with longer life expectancies, could make the debt unsustainable over the next 20 years, Walker said.

So, in an attempt to educate Americans about this "long-range problem," Walker has embarked on a national expedition of sorts over the last year, conducting town hall meetings in 19 states on the shape of the federal deficit. He calls it a "fiscal wakeup tour."

"I decided that people needed to hear the facts. They needed to know the truth," Walker said.

During the year and a half of organizing these town hall meetings, Walker has found that "More people are aware of the problem, and they want solutions," he said.

To avert the bleak future Walker describes, he said the United States needs to take immediate action.

"We need to re-impose budget controls," he said. "Secondly, we need to reform Social Security to make it solvent, sustainable and secure for the future. We need to engage in round one of health care reform and round one of tax reform.

"The fact is, it's going to take us probably 20 years to do all the things that need to be done to put us on a prudent and sustainable long-term path," he said. "But we need to get started now because the clock is ticking and time is working against us."

Walker began his 15-year term for the GAO in November 1998. He is married to the former Mary Etheredge, and they have two adult children -- a daughter, Carol, and a son, Andy -- and three grandchildren, according to the GAO Web site.


David Walker is the comptroller general of the United States.


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