Washington (CNN) – There's a lot of talk in nation's capital about failure. The failure of Congress to pass health care reform. The failure of the Senate to extend unemployment benefits. The failure of the House to pass bills the Senate supermajority will find palatable.
You get the idea.
Then there's the kind of failure that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer addressed Monday at a Brookings Institution speech on "fiscal responsibility."
Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat serving his 15th term, was warning about failure of a different magnitude entirely: The decline of America's economic dominance because of the growing weight of its debt.
"This, then, is our turning point and our choice: the point at which we join the debt-ridden powers who saw the story of their greatness end in fiscal ruin, or the point at which we as a nation refuse that ending and write a new chapter," Hoyer said.
The government runs on mega-borrowing these days and its debt could hit $13 trillion this year. It's largely the product of two wars, the Bush tax cuts, an expensive Medicare change, a colossal financial crisis and a deep recession.
But that's just a preview of the real problem that threatens to consume the federal budget: rising interest rates, which will make U.S. debt more expensive to repay, and growing health care costs.
"Our willingness to face reality is a measure of our character," Hoyer said. He offered a few ideas, speaking gently about gradually raising the retirement age for Social Security, and adjusting entitlement benefits to better reflect the finances of the retirees receiving them. Beyond that, he didn't get too specific.
In fact, just about everyone is leaving the details to the new National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. That's the 18-member panel that President Obama created last month by executive order - after Congress couldn't reach agreement on doing it by law – to recommend ways to start closing the gulf between what Uncle Sam spends and what he collects.
The commission, which has an end-of-year deadline, still hasn't gotten down to business. Only half of the panel has been selected so far: among them, its leaders – former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles – and three key senators named by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
And on Friday, Obama named four additional members including Alice Rivlin, one of Washington's leading fiscal hawks and founding director of the Congressional Budget Office.
Hoyer says voters are angry and ready to hold lawmakers to task. "Anger can be a constructive motivator or a negative impediment to thinking. Let's hope it's the former," he said.