December 20, 2014

Congress Should Use August Recess for Bipartisan Joint Appearances on Budget Compromises

Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert L. Bixby wrote this Kansas City Star op-ed.


On a speaking tour that included the University of Central Missouri, President Barack Obama called for Washington to move beyond the current gridlock to deal with the nation’s critical fiscal and economic challenges.

It’s a sentiment undoubtedly shared by many Americans regardless of their political affiliation. However, the President proposed no new initiatives to actually resolve differences and get something done. His speeches, like the predicable Republican responses, were more of the same.

Lots of people in Washington are talking, but they are talking past each other, not with each other. As a result, members of Congress will soon be heading home for their August recess with little progress to show on the budget front.

When they return to Capitol Hill there will be only weeks left before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Congress has not passed a single appropriations bill to fund government agencies beyond then.

Is all hope lost for any kind of agreement to avoid a government shutdown and a showdown over the debt limit later in the year?

Not necessarily.

There is nothing inevitable about a crisis. It all depends on whether the President and congressional leaders and other elected officials decide that avoiding one is worth reaching across the aisle.

For example, lawmakers might consider doing joint appearances with a colleague from the other party at public forums in both of their states or districts. Members of Congress who are willing to do so may find that the August recess provides some opportunities:

• It is an opportunity to show that our fiscal problems have not been solved.

The falling deficit is good news but it does not mean that Washington’s budget problems are over. The deficit declined largely as the result of a recovering economy and temporary factors.

The core problem is not a cyclical deficit driven by the ups and downs of the economy. It is an underlying structural deficit caused by a mismatch between future spending promises and current tax law. Because this problem has not been addressed in any meaningful way, the budget remains on an unsustainable track.

• It is an opportunity to show continued interest in a grand bargain.

Our fiscal challenges are not beyond our capacity to fix them. However, they are large enough that it is unrealistic to think we can deal with them by just cutting spending or by just raising taxes.

Members of both parties have put forward many good ideas. We now need an open and vigorous debate of all ideas that could be part of a credible solution. Comprehensive bipartisan plans such as Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin have shown that it is possible to bring the deficit under control through a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases without causing immediate economic harm.

• It is an opportunity to show that bipartisan cooperation is possible.

The public has become increasingly frustrated with partisan gridlock in government. Moreover, bipartisan consensus is essential to achieve a fiscally sustainable plan. One-party solutions will never gain sufficient votes to be enacted and are thus little more than partisan talking points.

A successful plan must be capable of resisting pressure to undo the tough choices it contains. The best way to ensure that a plan can stand up over time is to infuse it with broad bipartisan support from the beginning.

• It is an opportunity to engage the public.

The issues at stake — from social insurance to national security, domestic investments and tax reform — have profound consequences for our nation’s future. Reaching a fiscal sustainability agreement will be difficult, if not impossible, without a concerted effort to bring the public into the deliberations. When people are armed with the facts and given the opportunity for honest dialogue, they are willing to set priorities and make hard choices.

• It is an opportunity to show leadership and set a positive example for others.

How political leaders go about their business in the next few months will do much to determine the fiscal path ahead. By pairing up with someone from the other party for joint appearances, lawmakers can show their willingness to avoid a crisis, move beyond partisan talking points, and champion a reasoned, timely and mutually acceptable solution. Such leadership will set a positive example and encourage others to do the same.

Politicians need to spend less time positioning themselves to avoid the blame for a crisis, and more time trying to avoid a crisis from happening.