A workshop on reducing the national deficit was held by Congressman Jim Himes this past Saturday. The Concord Coalition, a non-partisan organization committed to cutting the national debt, facilitated the workshop for Fourth District constituents, providing materials and information.“Budgets reflect our values and our priorities and we all have different values and priorities,” said Himes, asking that people at least “keep it real” as participants in groups of six or eight went through a list of spending cuts and tax increases, trying to decide how they would cut the federal deficit.“Keeping it real” meant that totally eliminating the defense budget wasn’t going to happen, Himes said. On the other hand, subsidies for oil companies or corporate jets could.About 200 people had RSVP’d for the workshop and about 155 showed up, with the crowd flowing out of Osborn Hill Elementary School’s all-purpose room into the hallway.
Who knew that reducing the deficit would attract such a crowd on a springtime Saturday morning?The Concord Coaliton had prepared a 41 choice “ballot” with an amount that would be saved or spent for each choice. The Coalition’s numbers came from the Congressional Budget Office and from the Trustees for Social Security and Medicare, said Harry Zeeve, National Field Director of The Concord Coalition.None of the choices would be easy and that was the kind of choice facing members of Congress, said Zeeve, adding, “Think how each choice affects the economy, public policy and politics.”“If you were a member of Congress, would campaign financing dry up? Think like a politician,” Zeeve said.With dozens of tables set up, most participants later said that the discussions were cordial, even though people disagreed. Many said that it was tough to work through all the choices in the approximately hour and a quarter that they had. Most said that, even with the prepared booklets, they didn’t have nearly enough information and had a new respect for all that Congress has to know.Five categories were explored. Health, International Affairs, Income Security, Interest on the Debt, and “other” which included homeland security space and technology, the NIH, energy and energy, agriculture, disaster relief and veterans benefits.
Whether to cut agricultural subsidies, funding for the National Institutes of Health, eliminate federal subsidies for AMTRAK, eliminate the one dollar bill, allow discretionary spending to grow and at what rate, create a new squadron of ships, fund or cancel the national missile defense system, fund road improvement, eliminate taxes on capital gains and dividends, gradually eliminate the home mortgage interest deduction, raise the full retirement age of Social Security from 67 to 70, or tax the income of U.S. corporations as it is earned, were among the 41 choices.Eric Newman, of Fairfield, said that at his table each issue had people on both sides and “Some were for raising taxes, some were for lowering taxes. It was all over the place. Lots of split votes.”At another table, a lot of people were concerned about Social Security, said Danny Faryniarz from Riverside. “There were seniors and young people and they were prepared to listen to other peoples’ views,” he said, adding that discussion was “very cordial.” However, he admitted, as did many others, that an hour and a quarter was not enough time to get through all the choices. Nonetheless, his table “saved” $5.778 trillion with their choices.On the other hand, Barbie Mayer, there with her husband Tony, found their table finished early. “It seems we had very educated people who knew what the issues were and everyone had their emotional hotspots, but we didn’t let that dominate the discussion. It was a very comfortable process… Now, we’re continuing the discussion while we wait,” she said. Her table “saved” $3.6 trillion.In answer to a question at the beginning of the session, Himes said that if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire, $4 trillion would be saved over 10 years.On Social Security, Himes said that the government could make a contribution, something that has never happened before, or it could “tweak the levers” and raise the age at which people can take Social Security, raise the income cap on which Social Security is taxed, or means-test Social Security.Himes said that he voted for the Cooper-LaTourette budget, which incorporated the principles of the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan. Congress will make little progress on deficit reduction before December, Himes said, “with all the electioneering and bullet points and nonsense that we’ll see prior to November.” Debt ceiling votes, sequestration cuts, and expiration of tax cuts will be part of the atmosphere in Congress, Himes said, adding that there is a risk “that we simply put it off one more time, because we don’t want to raise anybody’s taxes, (or that we) extend the tax cuts as long as we can.”“It’s possible that Congress won’t want to make the tough cuts. That’s possible,” said Himes.“I think if that happens we’ll see another downgrade. I think if that happens, the rest of the world … may say, ‘We don’t trust you anymore,’ ” said the Congressman.“But I do think …we have the capability even in these polarized times,” Himes said, “I think we can get a deal done. It won’t be pretty, but I think we can do it,” he said.