Reflecting the sour public mood towards Washington, a panel of experts on the federal budget described themselves Thursday night as worried, puzzled, frustrated and disappointed as the fiscal stalemate dragged on.
They faulted top political leaders and other elected officials in both parties for irresponsibility, inflexibility and, in some cases, a lack of common sense.
It all led former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) to recall a comment by Will Rogers on congressional philosophy: “If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t stupidity get us out?”
Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert L. Bixby offered this suggestion for members of Congress who have failed to level with the public on the nation’s fiscal challenges: “If you are trying the strategy of pandering, pandering, pandering, and you are at 5 percent in the polls, why not try something else – coming together and legislating?”
The panel discussion took place at The Concord Coalition’s annual Economic Patriots Dinner in Washington.
Also on the panel were former Federal Reserve vice chair Dr. Alice Rivlin, former senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), and former senator Bill Brock III (R-Tenn.). Washington Post reporter Lori Montgomery served as moderator.
Domenici, who co-chaired the Bipartisan Policy Center's Debt Reduction Task Force with Rivlin, spoke of “difficult times for a great nation” and lamented the excessive partisanship that made political compromises much more difficult than in the past.
Rivlin, an economist who served as budget director in the Clinton administration, faulted both Congress and the White House for “a failure of leadership.”
Other panel members voiced similar assessments, although some put putting particular emphasis on the need for President Obama to lead in steering the country toward the broad, structural reforms needed to put the federal budget on a more sustainable long-term path.
“Right now he’s not leading us,” Domenici said.
Brock also expressed deep concern about the low level of respect that people now have not only for Congress but for other important institutions in American society.
All was not gloom and doom, however.
Much of the evening’s discussion focused on possible areas of political agreement, including the comprehensive sets of bipartisan recommendations that have been put forth by the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin groups.
The discussion repeatedly turned to the need to make entitlement programs sustainable, overhaul the confusing and inefficient tax system, encourage greater personal savings and promote a vibrant economy in the years ahead.
“If we don’t get economic growth,” Nunn said, “then all of this is just an academic exercise. . . . You’ve got to have a pro-growth tax code. If you do, all of these problems become more manageable. So it’s not a mystery; we know what needs to be done.”
Bixby said that public disgust with Washington – a “certain yuck factor” – was building and could encourage more centrist coalitions to form.
At the public budget exercises that Concord runs around the country, he said, ordinary citizens generally find common ground with each other and eventually work out the compromises necessary to substantially reduce future deficits.
Rivlin found encouragement in the fact that the growth in health care costs have slowed in recent years, at least partly as a result of reforms that are shifting away from the fee-for-service model that encourages unnecessary spending.
Panel members also had some suggestions for average citizens.
Brock – who described most members of Congress as “honorable, decent, caring” – said voters should be wary of politicians who take absolutist positions that leave no room for eventual compromise.
He said he would like to start a movement to defeat any politician who declares: “I will never . . . “
Nunn sounded a similar theme, lamenting that many candidates are getting elected “by saying they will not compromise, they will not work with the other side.” His solution is for more voters should support candidates in both parties “who say they are going to Washington to work with the other party and to solve problems. “
Nunn also admonished political moderates: “Right now if you are not making the zealots angry, you are not representing America.”