This article originially appeared in POLITICO on May 6, 2011
By David Walker and Robert L. Bixby
Through the fog of partisan warfare in Washington, one thing remains clear: We need big changes in government spending programs and tax policies to put our nation on a sustainable fiscal path.
As bipartisan negotiations headed by Vice President Joe Biden start Thursday, there were reports that lawmakers are more willing to engage on smaller issues — though major points, such as Medicare and tax reform, are to be kept off the table.
Meanwhile, Standard & Poor’s downgrade of its outlook for the U.S. maintaining a AAA credit rating is just the latest wake-up call for elected officials. How many more times can they hit the snooze button?
Whether you agree with President Barack Obama’s vision of the size and role of the federal government or the alternative put forward by House Republicans, both would require substantial changes in popular programs.
The status quo doesn’t add up. This is not ideology. It’s basic math.
Such sweeping reforms are likely to be politically difficult, so the American people’s active involvement is essential. We need a real national dialogue about the massive fiscal challenge, related risks, possible options and the inescapable trade-offs among those options.
Without greater public understanding, elected officials are unlikely to break away from their comfortable partisan talking points to find sensible solutions.
The president should lead this effort. After all, he is more than the head of his party. He’s the nation’s chief executive officer and possesses the bully pulpit.
That is why Obama’s recent speeches around the country have been disappointing. They seem to have hardened political divisions and made compromises more difficult. In campaign-style appearances, he has laid out the case for his new deficit-reduction plan and explained why he opposes House Republicans’ plan.
We understand Obama’s desire to draw distinctions between his plan and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s alternative. A better use of the bully pulpit, however, would be for the president, in partnership with other respected Democrats, Republicans and independents, to build public understanding and forge a public consensus.
That could be more constructive than attempting to win a partisan debate.
Republicans have also made compromise difficult, in adopting a starkly ideological and lopsided budget proposal that has no chance of approval by the Senate or the president. Even before Obama unveiled his new plan, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared that any proposal with higher revenues was a “nonstarter.”
Despite the heated rhetoric, neither side is blameless for our current predicament — and neither has a monopoly on American values.
In the end, neither side will be able to muscle through its preferred solutions on a straight party-line vote. To become law, controversial legislative proposals need a House majority, 60 votes in the Senate and the president’s signature.
The issues at stake — from social insurance reforms to national security funding to domestic investments and comprehensive tax reform — have profound consequences for the nation’s future. Setting priorities and allocating resources are not a simple matter of winning a partisan debate. Civility and compromise are going to be necessary, and the American people must be brought into that process.
A good first step would be for the president to reconfigure his road show into a teaching exercise — with fact-based presentations on the fiscal challenges and diverse perspectives on solutions.
The Clinton administration used this model when it worked with America Speaks, AARP, The Concord Coalition and others to help educate the public about Social Security.
In the final analysis, Americans need to develop reasonable solutions that can win bipartisan support. And we need to act before the U.S. suffers its own debt crisis. Meaningful public engagement efforts online, over the airwaves and person to person are essential.
The fiscal clock is ticking. The time to start is now.
David M. Walker, who served as U.S. comptroller general, is the founder and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative. Robert L. Bixby is executive director of The Concord Coalition.