November 27, 2014

Seeking Solutions -- Two By Two

Last January, members of Congress paired up with colleagues of the opposite party for the State of the Union Address. It was a welcome, if symbolic, display of political civility.

In the ensuing months, Congress and the Obama administration have struggled to put this civility into practice as they have grappled with sincere disagreements over the best approach to meeting the nation’s fiscal and economic challenges.

Agreements were eventually reached on funding levels for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year and on a complex process for raising the statutory debt limit. These agreements, however, largely avoided entitlement and tax reform -- the core issues on which Democrats and Republicans disagree and on which so much of our future depends.

Moreover, the partisan, petty and contentious atmosphere that continues to hang over Capitol Hill has angered the public and rattled financial markets.

There is hope, however, that the new joint congressional committee -- set up to find ways to reduce projected deficits by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years -- can change things.

With an even split between the two parties and the backing of congressional leaders and the President, the committee has an opportunity to transcend politics as usual, exceed its modest mandate and forge a fiscal sustainability plan based on shared values acceptable to a majority of Americans.

The one missing element is a concerted effort to engage the public.

The issues at stake -- from social insurance to national security, domestic investments and tax reform -- have profound consequences for our nation’s future. Setting priorities and allocating resources are not a simple matter of “winning” a partisan debate. Compromise will be necessary, and the American people must be brought into that process.

If the committee continues to lock itself away in a congressional cloister, the public will find it hard to understand and accept the politically difficult choices that the committee must make to reach or exceed its deficit reduction goal.

Moreover, committee members will need help from their congressional colleagues who are urging them to “go big.” It’s not enough to sit on the sidelines and wait for one committee to do all the heavy lifting.

Just as they did for the State of the Union Address, members of Congress should pair up. They should join together in “two-by-two” fiscal forums in which they present agreed-upon facts and engage with each others’ constituents about policy options. Public engagement is of little value if it just means listening to people who already agree with you.

And other members of Congress should be prepared to continue the effort next year in support of any reasonable plan produced by the committee, or to come up with something better that can win bipartisan backing.

Two-by-two forums would broaden understanding of the key issues and promote civic discourse about solutions. Moreover, through media coverage and social networking, they would have an impact far beyond those citizens who attend.

By appearing together, agreeing on some basic facts, and working through the trade-offs of potential solutions, policymakers could begin to win back public trust and help reach consensus on difficult decisions. It would certainly be an improvement over the typical exchange of tired talking points that has led to the current stalemate.

Any number of formats could work so long as the goal is to broaden understanding of the issues and seek consensus solutions – and not to score a partisan “victory.”

A good example was set earlier this year by Senators Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who held joint forums in Richmond and Atlanta. And this is just one model. Over the past six years, The Concord Coalition has brought together analysts and political leaders of diverse perspectives on our “Fiscal Wake-Up” and “Fiscal Solutions” tours.

Audiences across the country have been very receptive. They often express the wish that their political leaders would talk about the issues with the same appreciation of each other’s point of view. More importantly, audience members begin to accept the need for compromise.

The public is hungry for a nonpartisan dialogue on such big issues as the long-term fiscal challenges, and elected leaders need political cover to “do the right thing.” Two-by-two forums fit both needs. Indeed, if President Obama and Speaker Boehner had made their case for a “grand bargain” to the American people instead of vetting it with other party leaders, they surely would have found a more receptive audience.

Given the magnitude of the problems, changes will come with or without public engagement. Those changes, however, will be far more reasonable, equitable and politically acceptable if they arise from a national dialogue in which all sides bring their values and visions to bear. The alternative is a crisis caused by unrelenting partisanship.