In Search of Budget Sanity: A Dispatch From the Belly of the Beast

At a session on the looming debt crisis comprised of Republicans, Democrats, and others, one of the key findings of the group is that the "process is broken."
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Red Ink Rising! That was the title of a session on the looming debt crisis I just attended at the National Press Club. The panel discussion was built around a report created by the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform and featured presentations by commission members. Comprised of Republicans, Democrats, and others, one of the key findings of the group is that the "process is broken."

All agreed that intense partisanship has created problem solving paralysis in Congress. As one member of the audience observed in describing the current state of affairs, "One party falls on the sword and the other demagogues it." The group brought a unified sense of urgency and an exemplary dose of bipartisanship to the proceedings. You could almost believe that Democrats and Republicans could work together to avert a catastrophe that the panel believes is less than a decade away. In fact, one of the reasons they believe the time to act is now is because things are heading south more quickly than anticipated.

For those of you interested in reading the report, you can find it here.

In the meantime, here are some highlights of what was said earlier today:

Former House Budget Committee Chairman, James Jones noted that his time on Wall Street taught him that markets can behave just as irrationally as governments.

Alice Rivlin, who formerly served as director of both the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget, responding to a question from the audience about what is different now, said that the depth of the problem and the shift in focus from deficits to debt are changes worth noting.

Addressing the political possibilities for bipartisan solutions, Jim Nussle, a former Republican Member of Congress, said that people always say, "It won't happen in an election year." He went on too say, "...but it's always an election year," and a political solution is much more desirable than reacting to a devastating market event. Nussle also said that he didn't envision some type of Ebenezer Scrooge-like awakening in the aftermath of a meeting with the "Ghost of Budgets Past." Instead he offered that it would likely take a triggering event beyond the current sorry state of affairs to generate the kind of action needed to solve the problems.

Lots of pieces of the puzzle were discussed from a VAT tax to reductions in Medicare spending, but advocacy of specific policy initiatives was not the point. More important than any particular ideological approach was the agreement, that, as stated by Nussle, "Everything needs to be on the table and everyone needs to be at the table."

Finally, former Democratic Congressman from Texas and commission co-chair, Charlie Stenholm took a stab at solving the seemingly intractable partisan death grip that has led this group and others to conclude that the "broken process" is our biggest problem. He challenged those concerned with rigged congressional districts to do something about it by supporting The Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, introduced by Representative John Tanner (D-TN).

In recent years I've begun to wonder if we are still capable of solving big problems. Close proximity to the partisan circus on Capitol Hill, encouraged and exacerbated by the 24-7 cable news behemoth's insatiable hunger for conflict is enough to give pause to even the most optimistic among us. But if you'll allow me a moment of holiday season inspired positive thinking, it is nice to know that there are individuals and groups still willing to propose serious solutions to serious problems in a manner that respects the intelligence of the average citizen. They could use your help.

UPDATE: For additional information, check out the following website as well.

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