In Capitol Hill Meetings, Signs of Real Interest in Fiscal Reform

Blog Post
Thursday, August 27, 2015

It has been easy for advocates of generationally responsible tax and spending policies to look at Capitol Hill with dismay for the past few years. A few consequences of inaction and lack of bipartisanship include:

  • A complete breakdown in the federal budget process.

  • Continued struggles to replace arbitrary, shortsighted caps on discretionary spending with smarter deficit reduction.

  • Total inaction on addressing the main drivers of deficits in the coming years, rising health costs and an aging population.

  • More than 30 short-term extensions of transportation funding and a failure to eliminate the growing shortfall plaguing the Highway Trust Fund.

  • Multiple debt-limit showdowns, each of which threatened the United States’ credit rating and roiled financial markets.

Yet in the past few months, I’ve been pleased to see at least a few positive signs.

In over two dozen staff and member meetings conducted over the first two months of my tenure at Concord, we’ve found that some lawmakers are coming back around to the fiscal realities facing them this fall and in the coming years. Part of the renewed interest is unavoidable: Congress faces a mega-cliff this Fall and Winter with the extensions of the Highway Trust Fund, the debt limit, a continuing resolution and tax extenders, leading many lawmakers to ask why they’re facing repeated cliffs in the first place. But even more fundamental shifts are beginning to take place among the rank-and-file – political shifts that may bode well for long-term solutions down the road.

As reported by POLITICO on August 10, the House’s New Democrat Coalition and the Tuesday Group of Republican lawmakers met at the close of July to, in the words of New Democrat Coalition Chairman Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) look for “overlap and common ground.” Our executive director, Robert Bixby, spoke at this bipartisan gathering, which zeroed in on a number of upcoming deadlines facing Congress in the coming months. With 46 members in the New Democrats and a sizable number in the Tuesday Group, the fact that these pragmatic organizations have begun to meet is encouraging to anyone interested in serious reform.

Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) has also launched an initiative aimed at refocusing attention on the crisis facing America’s social safety net programs by starting to reframe the discussion. It is important that lawmakers find ways to return some attention to the very real and very human cost of our unsustainable fiscal commitments, which is why we’ll be following Chairman Price’s effort – as well as any similar efforts undertaken by Republicans, Democrats or Independents – very closely.

Individual lawmakers and pairings of lawmakers have stepped up as well. Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) helped lead a group of frustrated lawmakers proposing a novel solution to the highway funding crisis – a “Queen of the Hill” rule to give our elected leaders a vote on a range of bills meant to address the shortfall.  Ribble also continues to close in on 218 co-sponsors for a bill to move to a biennial budgeting process – long favored by Concord.

Outside of Washington D.C., there are some signs that lawmakers are rejecting the all-or-nothing budget politics of the past few years. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) delivered a speech in Raleigh in which he advocated for sustainable solutions to the highway trust fund and pushed back against the extremes of both parties. Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) hosted an informational exercise with his constituents in Rancho Cordova, CA last week. During the exercise, all five groups participating reduced the deficit over the 10-year window, something Congress has not been able to do recently.

As we turn to the fall, Concord’s Capitol Hill focus will center on continued efforts to provide a forum for lawmakers who refuse to be satisfied with the short-termism of recent years. We will host a series of “lookout” briefings for lawmakers and their staffs, provide staff-level events to introduce newer staffers to former Budget Committee advisers with experience understanding how the budget process worked when it worked, and host Principles and Priorities exercises in multiple congressional districts – not only to educate the public, but to educate our elected officials, who need to see the desire for fiscal reform firsthand. 

It would be premature to say that the tide has turned, but key leaders are beginning to emerge. As they continue to venture in the direction of long-term, fiscally-sustainable decision-making, Concord will do everything possible to be there for them every step of the way.