The general consensus is that the U.S. has a problem with the growing federal debt and deficit. However, last month, President Obama toldABC's George Stephanopoulos that there is no "immediate crisis in terms of the debt."
Members of the national Campaign to Fix the Debt disagree, respectfully. Wednesday morning at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, members of the group, including former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez and Tampa Congressman Jim Davis, addressed a breakfast crowd to emphasize the seriousness of the situation.
Although labeled as nonpartisan, liberal groups have blasted the organization as a pro-business front masquerading as a grassroots organization.
For those who hold that perception, it doesn't help that Martinez now works for JPMorgan Chase, the biggest bank in America.
"From a congressional standpoint, we see a bit of a window in this," said Martinez at the beginning of the hour-long panel discussion.
He said that window of time will last only until this September, when both political parties will then go into campaign mode for the 2014 congressional elections. And if that's the case, Martinez said it won't be until 2017 when there is a sincere attempt for a "grand bargain" of some sort.
"By then the debt will have increased dramatically," he said.
The most authoritative speaker was Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a national group focused on fiscal responsibility that was created 20 years ago by former New Hampshire GOP Sen. Warren Rudman.
Bixby called the debt a moral issue, and said it's not a matter of ideology, but economics. The culprits? The aging of America, in part.
"We can't grow our way out of it. That's really the bottom line," he said, stressing that "We have to put everything on the table."
Jim Davis currently works as a lobbyist for Holland and Knight, but previously served on the Budget Committee the last time the budget was balanced in the late 1990s under former president Bill Clinton. He exhorted the audience that they need to encourage and praise members of their own political parties for doing what is generally unpalatable for their base, such as Republicans supporting a tax increase or Democrats supporting raising the eligibility age for Medicare or Social Security.
Davis said it's unfair to tell somebody who has worked in a physically demanding job their whole life to be content with somebody saying they need to wait to collect public benefits that they've spent their working life paying into.
Twenty-five-year-old Paul Hernandez serves on the City Council in Hialeah, located just outside of Miami. He said cities like his are feeling the effects of Washington's budget problems, and grants that would go toward paying for infrastructure projects have been cut by 50 percent.
"You ask them why, and they say they're using a different formula," he said of the response from the federal government.
Some political analysts say that the emphasis — particularly from Republicans — on the growing deficit has obscured the fact that the economy is still struggling, and that it could use a boost of increased spending to pay for additional infrastructure, for example. But as CL reported last week, the word "stimulus" is now forbidden in Washington.
With so much dry policy talk, one of the few spontaneous moments during the breakfast discussion (sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay) came when a member of the audience asked if all these problems could be seriously alleviated by installing a flat tax — a favorite notion initially promulgated by conservative talk show host Neil Boortz and picked up by people like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
"To make it simple, that's never going to happen," Martinez said flatly, eliciting some laughs with his frankness. "We're going to reform the tax code. There will be some deep changes, but I don't think the political system is prepared to do that."