Kerrey and Danforth: Address the Debt and Meet in the Middle

Blog Post
Wednesday, June 23, 2021

This week on Facing the Future, we welcomed back to the program Concord Coalition Co-Chairs, Bob Kerrey and Jack Danforth. The two former U.S. Senators discussed their recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, titled “How Long Can America Keep Borrowing?” and the value of creating a Centrist Caucus in the Senate. Concord’s policy director Tori Gorman joined the conversation.

In 1994, President Clinton asked Senators Kerrey and Danforth to chair the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform. The Commission reached near unanimous consensus on the nature and scope of the nation’s fiscal challenges but reforms of popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare “were so politically fraught that finding consensus on solutions proved impossible,” Kerrey and Danforth wrote in their op-ed.

We discussed why they believe the problem has grown even worse since the time of their commission.

“The numbers are so compellingly large, and getting larger, just for the borrowing to fund current expenditures let alone the growth of the big three entitlement programs [Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid] and their unfunded costs over the future, it’s just stunning to me that it isn’t being addressed,” Kerrey said.

The “Do Nothing Plan,” which Kerrey said is supported by 535 members of Congress will impose substantial benefit cuts and/or big tax increases on future generations,” he warned. “Doing nothing eventually increases the size of the problem.”

According to Danforth, “The big change since 1994 is that then people - a lot of people - really cared about the problem, including President Clinton” and members of the commission.

“Now we continue to have the same problem with the same programs, plus all kinds of ideas for new entitlement programs and apparently zero interest in the national debt,” he said.

Danforth noted that the politics are easy to explain. “When a politician says, look I’m going to give you money and I’m going to pay for a lot of stuff and you don’t have to come up with a penny, that is good news, send it in! This is a problem that has grown substantially worse and there is no known concern for it.”

Given the partisan polarization and narrow margins of control in each Chamber, Kerrey and Danforth suggested that a centrist block of six to eight Senators could help move legislation with broad support. 

“Commissions are better than nothing because they do at least call attention to a problem, but the ultimate commission is members of Congress,” Danforth said. “So, how do you create a workable Senate or a workable House? I think the idea of creating some sort of bipartisan centrist block is the most promising thing to do.”

Danforth suggested that the centrist block position themselves as the swing votes. ”They would be under enormous pressure to go off individually and they would have to agree that they were going to stick together as a block.” 

Kerrey added that another positive step would be to abolish the four Congressional campaign fundraising committees [House and Senate for each party]. He said the existence of these campaign committees has shifted power from the legislative committees, such as Senate Finance, to the leadership offices. The hundreds of millions of dollars raised each election cycle is “an act of corruption and should end.” Kerrey said.

In addition, Kerrey observed, “it’s not easy to get somebody of the other party to work with you when you’ve got these committees out raising money to defeat the person you're working with. So, I like  the idea of an independent group of people who caucus together. They could still be Democrats or Republicans but they’re not going to be penalized for participating. And right now, they risk being penalized by the leadership of their own party.”

Hear the full interview on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL, NHTalkRadio.com (N.H.), and it is also available via podcast. Join my guests and me as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget and experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeart Radio or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.