The following Op-Ed appeared in The Billings Gazette on November 26, 2011.
By Paul Hansen
Within the space of just a few days, the national debt has topped $15 trillion — about $133,000 per taxpayer — and the congressional super committee failed in its effort to lower annual deficits and reduce the growth of the national debt.
When given a chance, ordinary citizens, college students and even high-schoolers have done much better at reducing the deficit than members of Congress.
That’s what the nonpartisan Concord Coalition has repeatedly found in conducting budget exercises with groups across the nation. In the Rocky Mountain states, citizens from across the political spectrum have been able to agree to budgetary changes that would reduce deficits by at least the $1.2 trillion that eluded the super committee.
In most cases, these citizens found amounts close to the $4 trillion, which would move us much closer to stabilizing the debt.
The exercise asks the groups to vote on domestic and defense spending options, tax and other revenue policies, and possible changes to health care and retirement programs. Although the goal is to reduce deficits, some options allow participants to increase spending for some items if they think those are reasonable investments for the nation’s future.
The participants vary by ideology and profession as well as age. They discuss and decide on policies to reduce projected federal deficits over the next 10 years.
Strong majorities frequently favor spending caps, increasing the taxable earning cap for Social Security, raising the Medicare eligibility age, comprehensive tax reform that raises additional revenue, and eliminating oil and agricultural subsidies.
In recent exercises, Republicans agreed to tax reform that yields new revenue and sensible cuts to defense, while Democrats agreed to changes to make entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security sustainable. (Additional information on Concord’s deficit-reduction exercises, including materials that can be used in the classroom or by community organizations, is available at concordcoalition.org .)
Since 2001, the debt has more than doubled. This was driven in large part by two wars financed by borrowing, a slew of fiscally irresponsible policies, and a deep economic downturn.
Neither political party is without blame, and neither can force its own agenda. Both must be part of the solution. Anyone who is serious about budget reform must be equally serious about compromise.
Members of Congress know what needs to be done. They also know that every single program or policy they look at has an entrenched constituency that will raise a perfect hell (and not donate to their campaigns) if they dare to touch it, as former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson recently reminded them.
We cannot simply cut, tax or grow our way out of this fiscal crisis. We must do all three.
The Concord Coalition is a national, grassroots organization dedicated to educating the public about the causes and consequences of federal budget deficits, the long-term challenges facing America’s unsustainable entitlement programs, and how to build a sound foundation for economic growth.
Concord began in 1992 as the voice of concerned citizens who were motivated, like the Minutemen at Concord, Mass., to take a stand in the belief that we have a moral obligation to leave the country better off for our children and grandchildren. Our work shows that here in the West and across the nation, the American people are well ahead of their leaders on this defining issue of our time.