The debate over our nation’s growing fiscal crisis has reached new levels lately. In late January the Congressional Budget Office announced that our deficit will reach $1.5 trillion in 2011 and that Social Security had gone into the red. Then, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Japan as if to signal what is over the horizon for us if we fail to address our deficit.

Since then, the public debate in Washington about the size and scope of spending cuts has reached a fevered pitch in the wake of the House Budget Committee’s announcement of cuts last week below the $100 billion level Republicans promised last fall.

It’s good to see a heightened sense of urgency dominating our national debate about the deficit.

But there is one problem: for political reasons, most lawmakers in both parties are unlikely to push for the kinds of radical changes we need to fix our entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security, which are the chief drivers of deficit spending. We cannot cut spending in these programs unless we change the laws governing how they work.

Here’s why this matters. Entitlement programs constitute 40 percent of the federal budget, compared to the third that non-defense discretionary spending consumes. Nearly half of the federal budget is off limits to spending cuts when you factor in interest on our debt.

Entitlement programs will eventually overwhelm our economy. If we do nothing, our deficit – which has historically been around 2.9 percent of GDP – will rise to more than 20 percent when a newborn baby today reaches her 40th birthday, and will climb to nearly 50 percent when she retires.

Our dilemma, then, is two-fold: first, lawmakers could cut every single dollar of discretionary spending in the federal budget, and our deficit will still be unsustainable; and second, lawmakers are largely unwilling to touch entitlement programs for fear of political blowback.

For instance, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the lone member of Congress to draft a plan to reform entitlements, has received very few backers for his specific ideas, even though Republicans are quick to praise them in general. No one is offering any other alternatives.

So what do we do?

The only thing that will push lawmakers to do the right thing would be for enough ordinary Americans to stand up and pledge to change our habits and expectations about the future so that the programs can be reformed.

The Republicans gave us their Pledge to America, which makes commitments on spending cuts, but it doesn’t go far enough on entitlement reform. Only a Pledge by America will get us there.

Americans of all walks of life – but especially those under 50 – need to commit to be a part of the long-term solution. It’s time for another “greatest generation” – one willing to change, even sacrifice, to save the future.

What kind of change should we embrace?

Real reform will require us to save more, work longer, expect lower benefit levels the richer we are, and receive up-front payments from the government for our healthcare that we manage instead of the government deciding what gets paid for. People 55 and older should be able to stay in the programs as they are currently designed. For the rest of us, we should pledge to do what we can to make reform work.

So what would a Pledge By America look like? Try this:

• I pledge to do all I can to be self-sufficient, and to raise children – if I have them – to be self-sufficient.

• I pledge to work until 70 years old.

• I pledge to save more of my income than I do now, by a few percentage points a year.

• I pledge to allow a portion of my payroll taxes to be deposited into a savings account for my retirement, rather than relying only on Social Security.

• I pledge to be a cost-conscious consumer of insurance and health care when I am age 70 and older, and to use a fixed contribution from the government each year to get the insurance and care I need.

• I pledge to live with less from the government if I’m fortunate enough to be well-off when I retire.

• I pledge to give back to my community to address the needs of those around me.
If we all took this pledge, and if Congress passed laws consistent with it, we could make entitlement programs solvent – and save the future.

What would we get in exchange? For starters, we would avoid the massive tax hike that is inevitable if we do nothing. Beyond that, savings would rise and we might even experience some civic renewal. Ultimately, though, we would be able to look guilt-free at our children when we say we’re doing all we can to give them the best possible future.

Ryan Streeter is Editor of ConservativeHome.com.