Deficit-Cutting Exercise Brings ‘Super Committee’ to Iowa

Published Nov 14, 2011. By Jason Noble.

A debt-busting super committee convened in Des Moines on Monday night.  Actually, about 25 of them did.

In a ballroom at Drake University, nearly 200 community members gathered for an exercise in slashing federal government spending, boosting taxes and beginning to rein in unsustainable federal deficits and debt.

The interactive discussion, conducted by fiscal-reform advocacy group the Concord Coalition and sponsored by Drake and The Des Moines Register, was intended to illustrate the complexity of a federal budget currently running $14.9 trillion in debt – and to challenge participants to consider the value judgments that play into the provision of government services.

Participants gathered at tables of six or seven and for two hours worked through a 10-page worksheet listing dozens of federal programs and expenditures and several possibilities for tweaking taxes and raising revenues.

Should Congress raise the age for Medicare eligibility? Decrease Social Security benefits for the wealthy? Eliminate the one-dollar bill? Cut ag subsidies? Extend the Bush tax cuts?

Everything was, literally, on the table.

At Table 9, two couples near retirement age, a retired schoolteacher and a Drake grad school student began with a wider discussion of the values and national priorities they believed were critical to preserve before working through the individual line items.

Together, they agreed on a commitment to education, the environment, a belief in progressive income taxes and a comfort with changes to Medicare, the health-care program for the elderly and disabled.

From there, they worked through the list, finding mostly agreement, but each honing in on their pet priorities as well.

On arts funding, for example, Frances Rockey, a retired teacher from Johnston, was adamant – it must be preserved. “This country about more than just money,” she said.

The biggest area of disagreement arose in a discussion of the gas tax. The proposal before them would raise the tax by 25 cents a gallon – generating $291 billion in new revenues.

Chuck Kilpatrick, of Urbandale, was all for it: “There’s a lot of people out there driving Hummers,” he reasoned. But others weren’t so sure. Kilpatrick’s wife, Karen, and Judy Ruch, also of Urbandale, questioned how the tax hike would affect low-wage earners and people from small towns who commuted long distances to work.

Tyler Veenstra, the Drake University grad student, wondered aloud about the time it would take for consumers to change their driving habits and lifestyles in response to the new tax. With those considerations before them, Chuck Kilpatrick softened his stance, and the group nixed the gas-tax proposal.

Ultimately, Table 9 generated $3.123 trillion in debt reduction over 10 years – powered largely by cuts to military spending, a new tax on millionaires and increases in eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare.

“Why do these guys take so much time in Washington?” Chuck Kilpatrick asked after one inspired run of deficit cutting. “We’ve got this all figured out.”

Monday night’s exercise in fact mirrors an ongoing – and by all accounts excruciating – effort underway in Washington. A specially appointed, bipartisan Congressional “super committee” has been meeting for weeks in an attempt to identify $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years. It’s expected to unveil its recommendations next week.

“Tonight you are the super committee,” Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert L. Bixby told the participants as the exercise began.

In fact, the ad-hoc committees assembled at Drake on Monday night went above and beyond the efforts super committee. Table 9’s $3.1 trillion figure more than doubled the ambitions of the Congressional committee, but was entirely average among its peers. Many groups found savings topping $4 trillion and a couple even ranged above $5 and $6 trillion.

Across the room, there appeared to be surprising consensus on one of the most controversial topics in Washington: restricting benefits for Medicare and Social Security.  At Table 9 and elsewhere participants largely agreed on increasing the eligibility ages and requiring wealthier Americans to pay more for those benefits.

The exercise’s value comes from putting real numbers to the nation’s fiscal challenges, said Steve Winn, a spokesman for the Concord Coalition.

When asked about the federal spending and debt in the abstract – as happens in opinion polling – people often focus on relatively small elements of the budget, while rejecting cuts to the major programs that actually would impact the debt, Winn said. Facing the actual numbers forces much tougher questions and softens hard-line stances against, say, Medicare reform or tax increases.

“This puts it into context for people,” Winn said.