Finding Common Ground, Solutions on Debt Crisis

Published Jul 4, 2011. By Amy Carboneau.

More than 100 area residents attended a mock town hall meeting with U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-5th, last week at the Harvey Wheeler Community Center to discuss solutions to the nation's 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 and the others focused on 35 budget items in 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.

The night was organized by the Concord Coalition, founded by the late Paul Tsongas in 1992.

"Since then, the Concord Coalition has become a strong, bipartisan and nationally respected aggregate for budget reform, and a trusted resource to legislators and the public alike," Niki Tsongas said.

"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," said Concord Coalition's National Grassroots Director Jeff Thiebert. "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.

"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 could save the nation an 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."

But they did 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," said Michaud.

"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," Gilbreath said.

As discussion ensued, Tsongas made her way from table to table to listen in on her constituents' problem-solving.

"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," Tsongas said.

"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 said.

According to information culled by the Concord Coalition, the nation's projected deficit for fiscal 2011 is $1.4 trillion.

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