Concord - The Harvey Wheeler Community Center in Concord was at capacity Wednesday night as residents of the Fifth District took part in a mock town hall meeting put on by Congresswoman Niki Tsongas for those interested in finding real solutions to the nation’s growing debt crisis.
“This is what it’s all about,” said Sudbury resident Sarah Hubbell. “As a forum, if you can learn from each other, it’s a much better process.”
Hubbell joined the crowd of more than 100 to discuss 35 budgetary line items separated by four categories: government spending, national defense/homeland security, revenues/taxes, and entitlements, which included Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Debate lasted a little more than an hour with each seated resident of Concord and other Fifth District communities discussing the issues as if they were the members of Congress.
The night was put together by the Concord Coalition, which was initially started here in Concord by Tsongas’ late husband in 1992.
“Since then the Concord Coalition has become a strong, bi-partisan and nationally respected aggregate for budget reform, and a trusted resource to legislators and the public alike,” Tsongas said.
For the Concord Coalition’s National Grassroots Director Jeff Thiebert, having never before been to the birthplace of his company, the night proved exciting.
“It heartens me to see how energetic people get when they’re talking about something a lot of people don’t think they’re interested in,” Thiebert said. “The federal budget isn’t the sexiest issue in politics, but people when they start doing it really get into it.”
The goal of the meeting was to educate those involved on the decisions currently under debate, as well as on how the process works, which Thiebert said is more difficult than people sometimes realize. Residents spent the next hour or so among groups of six to eight per table, discussing how to move forward and in which particular areas the nation can save money.
“All a budget is, is a list of priorities. And we all have different views on those things. And what’s helpful is understanding the tradeoffs that go into them,” said Thiebert.
It was an exercise in practice more than resolve. Nobody left the room with an answer to all of the nation’s debt issues. But many said they left having found common ground with the Democrat or Republican seated across the table.
“You’ve got to always keep an open mind; this is interesting we can discuss opinions back and forth,” said Acton resident Jim Ettwein, who runs the Rabid Republican Blog with fellow conservative Michael “Iron Mike” Farquhar.
Ettwein and Farquhar sat at a table of mostly Democrats to discuss opinions such as whether to raise the full retirement age of Social Security gradually (roughly two months per year) until the full retirement age reaches 70 — a decision that would save the nation a potential estimated $120 billion over the next 10 years.
Did they come up with all the answers?
“Certainly not,” said Ettwein. “You can’t get anything done in two hours.”
They did, however come up with an equation to save the nation more than $3 trillion over the next 10 years — primarily through entitlements.
“People need to stop thinking about the government as their parents,” said Farquhar. “You need to actually move out of the house at some point.”
At other tables, arms raised in votes of yes or no on various line items. At one table, self-described “arch conservative” Chris Michaud of Westford found himself seated across from more liberally-minded Michael Gilbreath of Wayland.
“We actually agree on Social Security,” exclaimed Michaud.
Gilbreath agreed: “There’s a way that folks on the left and folks on the right could agree on the same stuff…and Social Security might be one of them.”
As discussion ensued, Tsongas made her way from table to table to listen in on her constituents problem-solving. Also in the audience was state Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord.
Tsongas said of the debate: “I think number one it’s just designed to demonstrate the tough choices that we make in Congress, and that we’re all wrestling with the same choices that everybody here is.”
“I think we all recognize that we’re at a moment where we need to address these issues, distinguishing between what’s appropriate for the short-term and what’s necessary for the long-term,” she added.
According to information culled by the Concord Coalition, the nation’s projected deficit for fiscal year 2011 is $1.4 trillion.
“Spending continues to rise and revenues never seem to catch up,” Thiebert said, who added that the deficit could soar to $13.4 trillion within the next 10 years if nothing changes.
“We’ve got some serious problems to solve.”
Well Congress: the Fifth District is on it.