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On the Debt, Citizens Want Action, Not Perfection

NIF is a nonpartisan network of educational and community organizations that regularly convene people to exchange views on major issues. Throughout 2011 and 2012, the group brought typical citizens together to deliberate on options for tackling the debt.
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"Right now, our representatives have loyalty to self first; loyalty to party second; and loyalty to country third. They need to reverse it."

That's one citizen's take on the country's repeated failure to find solutions to our long-term budget and debt problems -- and this was his view even before October's shutdown and debt ceiling drama. This Mississippi man was participating in forums held last year in 24 states and the District of Columbia, organized by the National Issues Forums (NIF). NIF is a nonpartisan network of educational and community organizations that regularly convene people to exchange views on major issues. Throughout 2011 and 2012, the group brought typical citizens together to deliberate on options for tackling the debt.

I have long been associated with NIF, and I observed some of the debt forums and reviewed videos and transcripts of others. In conversations generally lasting about two hours, participants weighed ideas ranging from cutting federal spending and raising taxes to passing a balanced budget amendment to focusing on economic growth as the best way out.

Not surprisingly, people didn't become budget experts in just one evening, nor did they agree chapter and verse on an explicit package of solutions. Even so, the vast majority of those attending approached this discussion with a sense of pragmatism and flexibility that often seems scarce in Washington.

Here are some of the most important insights from the forums:

No. 1: Hardly anyone thought the solutions would be easy. Most of the citizens in the forums assumed that resolving a problem as difficult and controversial as this one means they will have to live with some changes they don't like. In many instances, this attitude seemed baked into the conversations from the outset. In a DC forum held within sight of the U.S. Capitol, a woman said she believed that citizens themselves need to "give some backbone to the people across the street -- to let them know it's okay to do tough things."

No. 2: Frustration with Washington's inability to compromise was palpable. Polls have repeatedly captured Americans' exasperation with Washington, and in the forums, citizens took the chance to describe what was bothering them. One woman compared what happens on Capitol Hill with what happens in her own household: "In our families, we've had to learn the sacrifices. You don't get everything you want, and you might have to give up this to get that. If our families can do it, why can't [elected officials] do it -- you know." In Kansas, a man said: "Never in my 57 years have I seen our government so dysfunctional... Everyone seems to just be pointing fingers and calling each other names and not working together to compromise."

No. 3: We need to act -- but we need to appreciate and think through the tensions and trade-offs too. Because participants chose to attend a meeting on the debt, it's not surprising that many believed there is an urgent need to act. "I have children and ... grandchildren" one man said. "My father was in the greatest generation that fought in World War II. I'm part of a generation that seems to be handing an unsustainable amount of debt to my grandchildren. I'm embarrassed. I'm angry. It's not fair."

Nonetheless, most participants seemed to reach for a balanced approach. In fact, conversations often revolved around how to sort out some of the tensions inherent in the debt issue: How can we get the budget under control without undercutting the economy? How can we protect the next generation without injuring our seniors? How can we share the sacrifice in ways that protect the most vulnerable -- and who deserves that protection?

Pundits sometimes suggest that the divisions in Washington merely reflect the divisions in the country overall, and polls do show major disagreements. According to Pew Research, more than half of Americans (56 percent) say government should be smaller and provide fewer services while 35% say it should be larger and provide more. This divide often surfaced in the forums; participants frequently held different views about government's role and effectiveness.

But these differences didn't stop most from looking for points of agreement, areas where they could compromise. Were the people in the forums so unusual? Were they more open to negotiation than the public at large? At the height of October's debt ceiling crisis, a CBS News poll showed that more than three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) said they would prefer having leaders reach an agreement that they themselves didn't fully support versus the 17 percent who preferred "not reaching an agreement on the debt ceiling and having the U.S. go into default on its debts."

Regardless of what happens as Congress and the President approach yet another set of deadlines, the U.S. faces a decade of decision making on stabilizing the debt, containing health care costs, reforming an unpopular and dauntingly complex tax system, and encouraging economic growth and more and better jobs.

As these forums reveal so powerfully, Americans across the country are frustrated by leadership in-fighting and open to serious solutions -- even those that include some changes they personally don't like. The question that worries citizens in communities nationwide is whether enough of the country's leaders will rise to meet the nation's challenges.