November 27, 2014

Citizens Wrestle With Tough Budget Choices

Hundreds of concerned citizens across the country have engaged in thoughtful and often spirited discussions about federal budget options this month through Principles & Priorities, The Concord Coalition’s popular deficit-reduction exercise.

Working in groups of a half-dozen people or more, participants assume the role of a congressional committee to consider dozens of proposals in various parts of the federal budget that could either increase or decrease government borrowing.

In California, where the San Jose Mercury News co-hosted an exercise with Concord last Wednesday night, most groups reported that they had agreed on policies that would reduce projected deficits over the coming decade by more than $4 trillion, a frequently stated goal in Washington. In some cases, the San Jose groups sliced future deficits by $5 trillion or even $6 trillion.

All but one group agreed on a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases. Participants often disagreed with each other but generally found they were able to reach compromises that would still significantly reduce deficits.

Several people noted, however, that if they had really been members of Congress, they would have faced ferocious criticism from special interests for their decisions to raise taxes and rein in spending on everything from defense spending to entitlement programs. “We didn’t think we would lose the next election,” said one group chairman. “We thought we’d be recalled.”

Earlier this month Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) each co-hosted events with Concord in their respective districts. Himes’ program was in Fairfield, Conn., and Bilirakis’ events were in Hudson and Trinity, Florida.

Himes was among the 38 House members who voted earlier this year for the Cooper-LaTourette budget plan, which is based on the work of the bipartisan fiscal commission that President Obama appointed in 2010. Concord has praised supporters of Cooper-LaTourette for their political courage and willingness to stand up special interests.

Himes expressed concern at the deficit-reduction exercise about whether Congress would be able to agree on significant deficit reduction later this year. But he said it had the capacity to do so “even in these polarized times.”

Bilirakis, who also co-hosted a Principles & Priorities exercise last fall, said such programs give taxpayers “an inside look” at the federal budget. “We must build a solid foundation for economic growth,” he said, “and that begins with improving our nation’s fiscal situation.”

Other deficit-reduction exercises were held this month with senior citizen groups in Atlanta and Roswell, Georgia.