September 22, 2014

Congress, Public Should Focus on the Big Fiscal Picture

Our nation’s reliance on a 24-hour news cycle has bred an environment focused on quick stories with tag lines to keep us engaged. Listening to a recent panel discussion, I realized that the emphasis on sound bites needs to change if we are to have any hope of improving the nation’s fiscal footing. Enacting sustainable fiscal policy will take far more than a superficial exchange of partisan one-liners.

The panel discussion, which took place earlier this month at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, focused on the federal budget, the national debt and the political roadblocks to fiscal reform. The panelists were Robert Bixby, executive director of The Concord Coalition; Richard Swett, a former ambassador to Denmark who also served in Congress, and Charles Arlinghaus, president of The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.

The event was co-sponsored by Concord, the Bartlett Center, the Campaign to Fix the Debt, the Millennial Action Coalition and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy.

Arlinghaus said that fiscal issues are “difficult to deal with, and do not easily fit in a 10-second sound bite.” He noted that human nature itself is an obstacle to fiscal reform because people will need to give up something they currently have. Politicians are reluctant to press difficult changes on the same people who can vote them in or out of office.

In reality, however, the status quo cannot be sustained. Our recurring budget deficits and projected growth of the national debt loom over the debates on nearly every policy issue in Washington. So it is important for ordinary citizens as well as their elected officials to focus on how much money the government takes in and spends -- and the persistent gap between the two.

Somehow, the American public and our elected representatives must move the country onto a more responsible and sustainable fiscal path. As Swett put it: “We do not have to agree on everything, but we do have to work together.”

Bixby said the general public is not as inflexible on key issues as polls might suggest.

“Polls can be misleading because anyone would say they do not want their taxes raised or social security reduced,” Bixby said. But he pointed out that in Concord’s budget exercise -- called “Principles and Priorities” -- participants around the country have been willing to compromise and consider the big picture.

Working together in these exercises, the participants consider key policy options in some detail. After listening to different viewpoints, many reconsider their own views and find ways to reach workable compromises with each other.

Clearly, the challenge is to replicate that experience on Capitol Hill.

Swett believes that Congress’ inability to take such action is currently a leadership issue. He sees elected officials from both parties with the wrong mindset: “They are not problem-solvers.”

The leadership problem was on display after the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission released its recommendations for comprehensive fiscal reform in 2010.

“Simpson-Bowles presented an opportunity that the President ignored and Congressman Paul Ryan opposed,” Bixby said. ”In a very bipartisan way, they killed the Commission’s proposal.

Nor has much progress been made since then towards broad, bipartisan fiscal reform. We cannot risk our nation’s future with further delays and political gamesmanship.

Swett said it well: “It used to be that if you did not want to improve our nation’s fiscal well-being, you were voted out of office. The opposite is true today.”

“In the Clinton era, presidential candidates entered a bidding war on who could balance the budget quickest, and that can happen again if politicians can be convinced that budget issues are important,” declared Arlinghaus.

Addressing our nation’s fiscal issues will require both public pressure and a perspective change from within Congress.

All the panelists emphasized the need for political courage, as opposed to political posturing.

As an example, Bixby cited the courage displayed by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) when they both voted for the Simpson-Bowles plan even though they did not support all of the individual recommendations and faced opposition from within their own parties.

“Durbin is very liberal and Coburn is very conservative, yet they found a way to look beyond their respective leanings and agree upon several reforms to put us on a sustainable fiscal path,” Bixby said.

The conventional wisdom is that fiscal issues are not ripe for fixing now because “we have not hit the iceberg yet,” said Swett.

We would be foolish to wait until disaster strikes to take action. The longer we delay, the more risks we take -- and the more difficult the necessary changes will eventually be.

So we must get beyond the sound bites to pursue lasting fiscal reform in a serious and bipartisan manner. Ordinary citizens around the country must encourage their elected officials to move forward in the national interest. Otherwise, many elected officials will not find the courage to do what needs to be done.