While elected officials in Washington are considering various proposals that would increase the federal deficit, dozens of Iowa residents demonstrated in a recent budget exercise that they strongly favor moving in the opposite direction — one that would substantially reduce projected government borrowing in the next few years.
Working in small groups, participants in the exercise at Drake University played the role of lawmakers in reviewing and voting on a wide range of proposals involving entitlement programs, defense, health care, other spending and taxes. Some proposals would increase deficits and others would reduce them.
In the end, these “congressional committees” produced budget plans that would reduce deficit totals over the next decade by anywhere from $1 trillion to — in most cases — more than $3 trillion or $4 trillion.
That would be a good start towards more responsible and sustainable fiscal policies. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that under current laws, deficits over the next 10 years will total a little over $10 trillion.
Figuring out how to significantly reduce deficits in the next few years wasn’t easy for participants in the exercise at Drake. People frequently debated and sometimes agonized over everything from changes in Social Security to how many nuclear submarines the Navy needed.
“Lots of tough decisions,” said one committee chairman. “Lots of people impacted. It’s hard to please everyone.”
However, there was also some satisfaction to be had as well.
“We just saved $331 billion!” a committee chairman enthused at one point.
The budget exercise, called “Principles & Priorities,” was developed and has been presented around the country by The Concord Coalition.
A particularly diverse group of organizations was involved program at Drake, which was on Oct. 10. The program was presented with support from the Drake University College of Business and Public Administration, the Harkin Institute, The Robert D. Ray and Billie Ray Center, and Vote Smart. In addition, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Farm Bureau, the Greater Des Moines Partnership and the Iowa Federation of Labor served as sponsors.
Participants in the exercise included at least two actual legislators: Former U.S. Rep. Neal Smith and Iowa state Sen. Jeff Danielson.
Smith, age 97, served in the House from 1959 to 1995 — the longest tenure for a U.S. representative from Iowa. He said after the budget exercise that he very much enjoyed it and interacting with so many young people.
“This experience,” Smith said, “helps people better understand how difficult it is to put the federal budget together.”
Reelection fears were a common sentiment among the make-believe members of Congress.
“Boy, I’m not going to get re-elected,” said one participant after a difficult vote on taxes.
Danielson, however, argued that if voters were presented with solid information about the federal budget and understood the numbers, they would respect and support elected officials who made difficult fiscal calls.
As often happens to members of Congress, participants in the exercise found themselves wanting additional information, running short of time, and moving quickly from one complex issue to another: rising medical costs, the gas tax, interest rates, human space exploration, college tuition and so on.
Participants also found themselves articulating certain values and responsibilities, and considering how others in their groups felt about the same issues. How should military service be rewarded? How much of the budget should be devoted to helping older Americans? How can younger people and future generations be protected from excessive government debt?
While some opinions were strongly expressed, the discussions were generally civil and often lightened with a bit of humor.
“A billion here, a billion there . . . ” said one man, recalling a famous line — attributed to the late Sen. Everett Dirksen — that concludes: “and pretty soon you are talking about real money.”
Real money wasn’t exactly on the table at the Drake exercise. The desire for a more responsible federal budget, however, was clear and emphatic.