Bipartisan Group of Former Lawmakers Push Congress to Reach Budget Deal
The group also is seeking to influence the upcoming presidential and congressional elections by raising public awareness of the nation's fiscal crisis, in hopes that average citizens will demand action from their candidates.
The drumbeat of doom continues to get louder as the United States heads towards a "fiscal cliff" in 2013 — a combination of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect that, economists project, will drive the nation back into a recession.
A deficit-reduction deal to avert the fiscal cliff would be relatively easy to achieve, if only members of Congress put their country's best interest ahead of partisan politics, said former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-GA.
Nunn, along with eight other former U.S. lawmakers, spoke Sept. 12 at the inaugural event of "Strengthening of America," the first of four forums planned over the next 20 days.
The overwhelming consensus among the panelists: The current stalemate over federal spending and taxes is driving the U.S. economy and global standing into a ditch. They also insisted that the crisis easily could be avoided if political leaders acted like adults and stopped playing budget chicken.
The panel's message took on added urgency as credit ratings agency Moody's announced it is considering downgrading the U.S. AAA credit rating if Congress doesn't act soon to avert the fiscal cliff. The current federal deficit is about $1.1 trillion. The nation's public debt of about $16 trillion now exceeds the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.
The retired lawmakers insisted that they are not trying to reinvent the wheel by proposing a new deficit-reduction plan. Broad guidelines already have been put forth by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — known as the Bowles-Simpson commission co-chaired by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. The commission was created in 2010 by President Obama. Other recommendations could be drawn from the Domenici-Rivlin task force, led by former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and former budget director Alice Rivlin.
The outline for a budget deal is in place, Nunn said. “All that's missing is willingness to take action,” he added. "This is not a complicated calculus or physics problem," Nunn said. "The hard part is making political choices ... and having an honest discussion of our fiscal challenges."
The nation's debt is growing faster than the economy. As a result, it will become tougher for the United States to keep borrowing money at today's historically low interest rates. A long-term deal including both spending cuts and tax increases would help restore confidence in the United States and keep interest rates from soaring, said former Secretary of State James Baker, who joined the panel via satellite.
The threat of the fiscal cliff is real, Nunn warned, as economists have concluded that sharp immediate cuts in spending and sharp rise in taxes will push the nation back into recession.
Nunn called for the current Congress to come to its senses. "The parties spend time and attention blaming each other," said Nunn. The endless finger pointing only puts off the inevitable compromise that eventually both parties will have to reach. "There is no chance that one party will be able run over the other and impose their perfect solution," Nunn said.
Domenici, one of the nine former lawmakers on the panel, said it would be naive to expect a "grand bargain" agreement over the lame-duck session after the election. "There is not enough time," he said. Even a partial "down payment" deal to reduce the debt would be unrealistic in that short amount of time. "That's a fool’s errand," he said. "It's going to be just as hard to get a down payment as a grand bargain."
So what can be done? It's simple, said Domenici. During the lame duck session, Congress should agree on the size of the deficit reduction package, and set a timeline. He suggested Congress should adopt Simpson-Bowles' goal of $4 trillion in debt reduction over 10 years — $3 trillion in cuts, $1 trillion in new tax revenue. Lawmakers also would have to a set a series of milestones for calendar year 2013 that would lead up to a grand bargain. An enforcement mechanism, too, would be necessary to ensure the deadlines are met. Another "sequestration" scenario would not be out of the question, Domenici suggested.
The second "Strengthening America" forum is scheduled for Monday Sept. 17, when the panel will discuss the national security implications of the rising U.S. debt. Guest speakers will include former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Chairman f the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. Deficit-reduction gurus Simpson, Bowles, Domenici and Rivlin also are on the lineup
On Sept 27 the group will host an event in New York City focused on tax reforms. On Monday Oct. 1, they will talk about health care and entitlement programs' cost control, which Nunn categorized as the "most important and difficult challenge."
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