August 1, 2014

Citizens Show Hard Work, Compromise Can Work for Deficit Reduction

Sara Imhof, Midwest regional director for The Concord Coalition, wrote this guest column, which appeared Monday in the Duluth News Tribune. 

We’ve been warned. Recent reports from the Congressional Budget Office and the trustees for Medicare and Social Security underscore the difficult fiscal challenges facing our nation. Although some short-term declines are projected for federal deficits in the next couple of years, the CBO warns that the deficits are expected to begin climbing again after that. On its current path, the government will run deficits totaling $6.3 trillion over the next decade.

Despite the clear warning signs, budget talks between Republicans and Democrats in Washington are stalled. House Republicans and Senate Democrats have approved very different budget plans, and neither is particularly realistic. And Congress hasn’t set up a conference committee to try to resolve the differences between the two plans.

Americans expect more. And when given the opportunity, they have shown a willingness to make the hard budget choices themselves.

The nonpartisan Concord Coalition has conducted interactive budget exercises involving thousands of people across the United States. The participants, working in small groups, discuss and vote on policy options for taxes, defense, health care, Social Security and other domestic spending. Some options reduce the deficit and others increase it.

We have found that people outside of Washington often are willing to make sacrifices for the broad public interest. Many support comprehensive tax reform, for example, even though it means losing certain tax breaks. They often are willing to make reforms in Social Security, such as raising the taxable earnings cap for the payroll tax or using a more accurate inflation index that would mean less generous increases in benefits, in order to help ensure solvency of the program.

Where is Washington on such reforms? Nowhere. However, Minnesota’s U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan is hoping to change that.

On Wednesday he and the Concord Coalition will host two programs to engage constituents in a discussion about the national debt. They will have the opportunity to participate in budget exercises, deciding how they would reduce federal deficits while still ensuring government spending and taxes reflect Americans’ principles and priorities.

Students, members of the business community and other constituents are encouraged to attend the program from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Kirby Ballroom at the University of Minnesota Duluth or the program from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Central Lakes College Cafeteria in Brainerd.

Elected officials will have to start serious budget discussions soon because Congress must pass funding for the new fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. In addition, the federal debt ceiling eventually must be raised again to avoid a government default.

Comprehensive fiscal reform will require bipartisan cooperation. Fortunately, a number of bipartisan groups have offered many thoughtful recommendations for changes throughout the federal budget.

The proposals originally put forth in 2010 by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, headed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, are a great place to start.

Recently revised to reflect where negotiations stood last December before the “fiscal cliff” agreement, the Simpson-Bowles plan demonstrates it is possible to gradually rein in the debt over the long term without causing short-term damage to economic recovery. The plan relies on a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases.

If both parties focus only on partisan concerns and stubbornly insist that the other side must make all the compromises, our economy will suffer, the national debt will continue to grow, and our children’s future will remain at risk.

To succeed, Washington policymakers will have to rely on civility, tolerance, courage and common sense.

It’s important for Americans, in Minnesota and around the country, to let their elected officials know that’s what we expect.

Sara Imhof of Coralville, Iowa, is the Midwest regional director for the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group dedicated to educating the public about the causes and consequences of federal budget deficits (concordcoalition.org).