November 25, 2014

Around the Country, Finding Common Ground on the Debt

Watching the recent Strengthening of America forums online from my office in Wyoming, I was encouraged by how former Democratic and Republican members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries and other national experts could find such so much common ground on a course for fixing the national debt.

As the western states regional director for The Concord Coalition, I was struck by how this matches what Concord has found working with local leaders and the public here in the West and across America.

It also matches recent statements by national associations of mayors and state officials. While there remain some differences on details, it became evident that there is a much more bipartisan agreement than one sees from watching the 2012 political campaigns.

Four public forums were presented in Washington and New York City between September 12 and October 1 by Strengthening of America – Our Children’s Future, a bipartisan initiative co-sponsored by The Concord Coalition.

These forums featured a diverse collection of business leaders, former members of Congress and former government officials. They identified the key components to a comprehensive fiscal solution: tax reform that generates more revenue for deficit reduction, slower growth in health care costs, sustainable Social Security and Medicare programs, reasonable limits to military and other domestic spending, and the willingness of elected officials to compromise to achieve all of the above.

These leaders emphasized that nothing we can do would have a more positive effect on growth than Washington embracing a credible long-term deficit reduction plan and sticking to it. The business leaders, in particular, noted that a bipartisan plan to address the debt problem would reduce uncertainty in the private sector, making companies more willing to hire workers and expand production.

Panel members were emphatic in calling for fundamental changes in the country’s costly, cumbersome tax policies as a necessary precursor to economic growth. They described tax reform as a rare opportunity to do two or three things that this country desperately needs with one shot.

Panel members also agreed that two complex and interrelated tasks are essential to the nation’s future prosperity: curbing the growth in health care costs and reforming entitlement programs -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- to more closely match revenue and spending.

The strong bipartisan agreement among these experts that something like the Bowles-Simpson framework is a good place to start aligns squarely with the common-sense experience that Concord Coalition staff members see in their everyday contact with people across the nation.

Our fieldwork provides evidence that ordinary people actually seem to understand the need for fiscal reform better than most federal elected officials.

During the term of the 112th Congress (2011-2012), we presented chart talks and conducted budget simulations with thousands of Americans. That includes constituent groups for 27 members of Congress, student organizations, service clubs and many others.

We find that, with sufficient nonpartisan information about the country’s fiscal challenges and possible solutions, strong majorities of people agree on recommendations that resemble those of the Simpson-Bowles and Rivlin-Domenici panels as well as the encouraging consensus seen in the Strengthening of America forums.

In our budget exercises, average people routinely find $4 trillion or $5 trillion in spending cuts and new revenue over the next ten years – enough to stabilize the debt.

This concurrence of opinion also squares with the emerging position of associations of state and local leaders. This year the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments – West, and the United States Conference of Mayors all released statements calling on Congress and the President to approve legislation that deals comprehensively with the national debt.

These groups, too, urge spending cuts, recognize the need for tax reform that generates more revenue, and call for people – in order to reach principled and effective compromise – to accept some provisions they may personally oppose.

When people understand the debt problem, they want it solved. In the words of former Senator Pete Domenici, one of the senators who convened the recent forums: "People understand the word 'broke.' "

Unfortunately, the word “broke” also describes our political system’s effort to deal with this issue. Congress has repeatedly failed to take appropriate action, including the failure of its “super committee” a year ago to find only $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade.

So far, both presidential campaigns have also missed the mark with vague rhetoric and budget proposals that would raise the nation’s debt over the next ten years.

The candidates and Congress would be wise to listen to the Strengthening of America leaders, the states, the mayors, and average citizens. They all understand what needs to be done – done together and done now.