Reviewing the dismal state of federal finances last week, two current members of Congress and two former lawmakers emphasized both the urgency of reform and some of the obstacles that must be overcome.
They offered their thoughts during a panel discussion at The Concord Coalition’s annual dinner in Washington. The panel members were Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) – who were among the 38 lawmakers honored at the dinner for supporting bipartisan fiscal reform – and two former House members, John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and Michael Castle (R-Del.). Tanner and Castle currently serve on Concord’s Board of Directors.
Castle opened the discussion on an upbeat note, saying he thought the country was on the verge of change because “the American public has had enough of the unbalanced budgets.” He stressed the need for strong presidential leadership, whoever wins the race in November. Among his concerns, however, are the strong attacks by some in the media on lawmakers who take responsible positions that challenge traditional thinking in their parties.
Tanner worried about political polarization that he attributed in part to the fact that many congressional contests are decided in party primaries rather than in general elections. Lawmakers who try to do things for the good of the country, he said, are “bombarded in the next party primary.” He described the country’s fiscal situation as a test of whether the current generation of Americans is “capable of governing ourselves.”
Cooper stressed the need for immediate action, noting that every day of delay costs the country another 8 to 12 billion dollars. “It makes it hard to take a nap,” he added. Among the hurdles Cooper identified: a “war zone” atmosphere in the House, public confusion over the government’s role in programs like Medicare, and the fact that there are dozens of lobbyists for every elected official – lobbyists whose message “is basically to increase the deficit.”
LaTourette lamented the heavy spending from outside groups in congressional races and the defeat of “sensible people” in party primaries. He also said he found it “really startling” to hear some lawmakers suggest shutting down the government, defaulting on the federal debt or dismissing the need for entitlement reform. He predicted that voters would strongly support a presidential candidate who embraced the bipartisan fiscal reforms suggested by the Simpson-Bowles commission.