October 2, 2014

Imhof, Penny: Lessons from a Champion of Responsible Budgeting

This Pioneer Press (Minnesota) op-ed was written by Sara Imhof, Midwest regional director of The Concord Coalition, and former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny, president and CEO  of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. It was published Friday. 

 

"Let me be blunt," Sen. Warren Rudman said 20 years ago in one of his many appeals for more responsible budget policies in Washington. And as promised, he did not mince words.

The two main political parties, according to the outspoken New Hampshire Republican, were afraid to "speak the truth" to the American people about the enormous fiscal and economic challenges facing the country.

The public, he complained, had been led to believe that these challenges could be easily met with a few simple steps such as slashing congressional perks and eliminating foreign aid.

Rudman said it was time for Congress to shift its focus away from special interests and concentrate on promoting "economic growth and a future for the kids of this country."

Last month, with Rudman's passing at age 82, the nation lost a true champion of responsible federal budget policies. Had our national leaders heeded his warnings, perhaps our fiscal future would not look so bleak now.

Yet here we are today, having recently recorded another annual deficit in excess of $1 trillion, comprising nearly 40 percent of the federal budget. The national debt has climbed well above $16 trillion, roughly the size of the country's Gross Domestic Product.

As we approach the so-called fiscal cliff and another fight over the debt ceiling, and consider how to fund the baby boomers' retirement years, courageous political leadership on the budget has never been more needed.

But all too often that leadership, from the White House to Capitol Hill, has been lacking.

The year-end fiscal cliff -- a combination of expiring tax cuts and poorly designed spending cuts -- threatens to put the country back into a recession. Washington needs to quickly find a better alternative to the cliff, while laying the groundwork for more comprehensive, long-term fiscal reforms.

Facing this task, our elected officials would do well to keep Warren Rudman's example in mind.

His commitment to the cause of fiscal responsibility stretched back to his days in the Senate, where in the 1980s he sounded the alarm about our long-term challenges and sponsored the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction legislation.

In 1992, Rudman joined former Sen. Paul Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Peter G. Peterson, a former U.S. secretary of commerce, in founding The Concord Coalition. His comments above were made at that time.

The goal was to establish a non-partisan watchdog organization that would both alert the public to the dangers of large deficits and hold elected officials accountable for votes that added to the red ink. Rudman served as a Concord co-chair until his death.

Rudman understood that the anti-tax impulse of his own party -- and the big-government impulse of the Democratic Party -- often meant that neither party could be trusted to watch the bottom line.

He sought to pull and cajole his colleagues away from the fiscal extremes and toward the responsible middle -- always with an eye on protecting the country's standard of living and shielding future generations from inheriting excessive government debt.

Some elected officials have followed in his footsteps. Earlier this year, for example, 38 House members voted for legislation based on the bipartisan recommendations of the widely respected Bowles-Simpson commission.

However, that was only 38 out of 435 House members. Likewise, in the Senate, a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" has been working on sound fiscal policy alternatives. But again, more lawmakers are needed.

Now the nation watches as the finger-pointing in Washington continues over the fiscal cliff and longer-term reforms. With time running short, offers have been made and rejected and both parties frequently retreat to their partisan corners.

After the November elections, neither party has the power or credibility to simply push through its own agenda. Bipartisan compromise is the only option -- and the only way to reflect the wishes of a closely divided electorate.

We need Warren Rudman's brand of leadership again. Can Obama and Congress provide it -- before it's too late?

This column can also be found at http://www.twincities.com/opinion/ci_22234049/imhof-penny-lessons-from-champion-responsible-budgeting