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Iowa Caucus Consortium

Billi Hunt, from left, of the Partnership Government Policy Council, moderates as Ed Rendell and Paul Stebbins discuss the federal debt during an Iowa Caucus Consortium event on Thursday at the Iowa Historical Museum in Des Moines.

DES MOINES — In describing how Congress could solve the country’s rising debt, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell borrowed from The Rolling Stones.

Rendell, speaking Thursday in Des Moines at the Iowa Caucus Consortium’s “Debt Matters” presentation, was trying to illustrate the point that federal lawmakers need to work across political boundaries to reduce the country’s $13 trillion in net debt when he invoked the Stones.

“You can’t always get what you want,” Rendell said, using a lyric from a Rolling Stones song. “But if you try some time, you might find, you get what you need.”

Rendell and former World Fuel Services Corp. CEO Paul Stebbins, co-chairs of the national advocacy group Fix the Debt, spoke at Thursday’s event at the Iowa Historical Museum.

The duo recited the harrowing statistics: The country’s debt is almost three-fourths of the nation’s gross domestic product, and mandatory spending is on course to eat up the entire federal budget.

“The debt is real, it is serious, it’s insidious, and it’s eating at us,” Stebbins said. “We are well on our way to really eating up every last bit of the budget on nondiscretionary spending.”

So why does such a serious problem go unaddressed by the federal government?

Rendell and Stebbins said it will take political courage to tackle the growing federal debt, which is driven largely by health care costs and Social Security. And fixing Social Security, they said, likely will require somewhat unpopular changes such as raising the retirement age or the cap on taxable income or changing how inflationary costs are calculated.

“It might hurt in the short run, but they are going to be things that will fix the country in the long run,” Rendell said.

Stebbins and Rendell encouraged Iowans to press the large field of presidential candidates who visit the first-in-the-nation caucus state on their ideas for reducing the federal debt.

Rendell said the only candidate he hears talking about entitlement reform is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican.

Stebbins said elected officials lack the political courage to address such issues, that they treat voters as if they are incapable of having an intelligent discussion about tackling the issues.

“Demand some accountability on these issues,” Stebbins said. "Don’t let them run away."

Fix the Debt describes itself as a nonpartisan group with the goal of “putting America on a better fiscal and economic path."

“This is not a problem that’s going away,” Rendell said. “It has to be solved for a million different reasons.”

The Iowa Caucus Consortium, which was created to highlight and maintain Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus status, includes multiple central Iowa business and media organizations, as well as the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties.

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