In an increasingly divided Washington, an unusual display of bipartisan cooperation broke out this spring: Thirty-eight House members joined to support a broad, long-term budget plan -- one that put everything on the table and required tough political compromises.
A Republican majority in the House eventually approved a less balanced plan. No Democrats voted for it. Similarly, no Republicans voted for an alternative plan advanced by the Democrats. This merely sets up another collision course between the parties later in the year.
The courageous effort by the 38 House members from both parties, including California Democrat Jim Costa, took a more productive approach. Their compromise plan signaled growing frustration over partisan bickering -- and reflected confidence that average Americans stand ready to support difficult but necessary decisions to put the nation on a more sustainable course.
Do they? And if so, what sacrifices and priorities would these average Americans support?
An event in San Jose on Wednesday night -- a deficit-reduction exercise open to the public -- will shed light on these questions. Working in small groups, the participants will consider dozens of policy options that could increase or decrease federal deficits.
Should some tax cuts be continued? Should the country cut military spending? Should changes be made in Social Security and Medicare? How much assistance should go to farmers, college students and struggling homeowners?
Sweeping changes are clearly needed. The federal debt now totals nearly $15.7 trillion and is expected to grow rapidly in the years ahead, even after a full economic recovery and reductions in U.S. military commitments abroad.
Last month the Treasury Department reported that the government is on course for its fourth annual deficit in a row to exceed $1 trillion.
The country also faces tens of trillions of dollars in other unfunded liabilities, notably in Medicare and Social Security. In April the trustees for those two programs issued their annual report, which again underscored their unsustainable paths as the population ages and health care costs continue to rise.
Without comprehensive reform, we will leave our children and future generations with enormous debt, higher taxes, lower living standards and a diminished U.S. role in the world.
Fortunately, some in Washington are thinking about solutions. A bipartisan majority of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, appointed by the president in 2010, offered many thoughtful recommendations and showed that there is room for compromise.
The budget plan that drew bipartisan support in the House this spring, introduced by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), was based on the work of the Simpson-Bowles commission. The plan would pursue changes in all parts of the budget: defense, taxes, entitlements and other domestic programs. A group of senators known as the "Gang of Six" continues to work on another plan that would follow through on the commission's work.
As these efforts recognize, there is no one right answer to our budget challenges. Americans have different views about the appropriate role and size of government. These are legitimate points of disagreement. If everyone holds out for his or her own idea of perfection, however, it will be impossible to alter the current fiscal path that leads straight over a cliff.
The deficit-reduction exercise Wednesday night, co-hosted by the San Jose Mercury News, was developed by The Concord Coalition to help Americans understand the magnitude of the fiscal challenges and to grapple with proposed solutions. It can help voters hold elected officials and candidates accountable for their budget proposals. In addition, Concord relies on the results of such exercises in advocating more responsible fiscal policies in Washington. We hope you will join us.
Robert L. Bixby is executive director of The Concord Coalition and will lead the federal budget exercise from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the San Jose City Hall rotunda. (Space is limited, so preregister at concordcoalition.org/RSVP.) He wrote this for this newspaper.