We Americans are having a national dialogue of sorts about the federal debt. Our elected officials and pundits are leading it. It might even go well this time.
Stop chortling out there.
My hope for serious dialogue began to stir in December, with the release of a report from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Often associated with its co-chairs—former Republican senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles—the commission seems to have approached its work with both seriousness and bipartisanship. You’ve got to love a report that includes this:
We spent the past eight months studying the same cold, hard facts. Together, we have reached these unavoidable conclusions: The problem is real. The solution will be painful. There is no easy way out. Everything must be on the table. And Washington must lead.
Read that first sentence again. I would submit that the experience of coming together, with all our differences, to study “the same cold, hard facts” is extremely rare these days—let alone for eight months at a time.
Now look at the result. The recommendations in the final report could not possibly have come from one partisan group or another. They include substantial reform of Social Security and reductions in defense spending. They include commitments to protect the disadvantaged and to “cut spending we cannot afford—no exceptions.” They devote a lot of time to the programs that contribute the most to the debt.
This is what dialogue can do—dialogue that sets aside preconceptions (however temporarily), looks at the “cold, hard facts” when they are available, and shares ideas across divides. Why is it that such clear thinking and dialogue in Washington happen only in rare shining moments? What would happen if it took place more consistently?
Maybe we won’t have to wait too long to find out. The “roadmap” from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) is certainly a bold attempt at a serious proposal (though I find it draconian). The president’s 2012 budget proposal takes on some recommendations from the Simpson-Bowles commission (though not nearly enough of them, in my view, and the cuts to key programs for the poor are still too deep). Then there’s the so-called Gang of Six: a half-dozen senators, three Democrat and three Republican, who are crafting a counterproposal of their own.
So the president has paid attention to the dialogue from the Simpson-Bowles commission, if only in part. Others are dialoguing with their “adversaries” on a proposal that offers more cold, hard truth about a cold, hard situation. Perhaps the result will be legislation that actually addresses the debt crisis.
Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change? And if dialogue truly can contribute to big solutions, shouldn’t we be demanding more of it from our elected officials?