November 1, 2014

The American People Want In

 

This post originally appeared on The American Square

Twelve official members of the new joint congressional committee charged with reducing federal budget deficits by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years have been named. What remains to be seen is whether an unofficial, but crucial, 13th member will be included in the committee’s deliberation – the American public.

Most of the deficit reduction negotiations this year have taken place behind closed doors and none of it has gone beyond Washington horse-trading to engage the public in any meaningful way. Exchanging shop-worn, poll-tested talking points on cable TV is not “public engagement.”

We watched the debt ceiling debate with horror as politicians played “Chicken” with our nation’s creditworthiness. Business leaders warned that the possibility of default, in one form or another, would create a ripple effect through the economy with lasting negative consequences. To top it off, even with the deal that was eventually reached, Standard & Poor’s dropped the U.S. from its list of AAA sovereign nations over concerns that political intransigence in Washington would stand in the way of meaningful solutions.

The new committee has an opportunity to change all that. It can transcend politics as usual and forge a sustainable fiscal plan based on shared values and acceptable to a majority of Americans.

The issues at stake -- from social insurance to national security, domestic investments and tax reform -- have profound consequences for our nation’s future. Setting priorities and allocating resources are not a simple matter of “winning” a partisan debate. Compromise will be necessary, and the American people must be brought into that process.

If the committee locks itself away in a congressional cloister, the public will find it hard to understand and accept the politically difficult choices that the committee must make to reach its deficit reduction goal. In this environment, a simple “trust us” by a congressional committee won’t cut it.

A good first step would be for committee members to get out of their respective echo chambers. They should join together on a “two-by-two” road show in which members present agreed-upon facts and engage with each others’ constituents about policy options. Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) provided a good example of this by holding joint events in Virginia and Georgia.

The Concord Coalition has used this model for years on our “Fiscal Wake-Up” and “Fiscal Solutions” tours. Audiences across the country have been very receptive.

Speakers at these events have different opinions on the appropriate size of spending, taxes and debt, but emphasize key areas in which we have found consensus, such as:

  • The overall dimensions of the problem
  • The nature of the  trade-offs in weighing real solutions
  • The adverse and inequitable consequences for our children and future generations if we fail to make serious changes sooner rather than later.

Current policy is unsustainable, so changes will come with or without public engagement. Those changes, however, will be far more reasonable, equitable and politically acceptable if they arise from a national dialogue in which all sides bring their values and visions to bear than if they result from a crisis caused by unrelenting partisanship. How the new committee goes about its business will do much to determine which path is taken.