The U.S. Senate and House last week wisely passed a bipartisan agreement to reopen the federal government through Jan. 15, 2014. In addition, the debt ceiling was lifted until three weeks later (Feb. 7), thus averting a likely fiscal disaster and setting the stage for more negotiations between Congress and President Barack Obama. Nine Minnesota members of Congress agreed to this tentative solution; Rep. Michele Bachmann voted against the deal.
Much work remains to be done in both chambers, as House and Senate leadership has already named a bipartisan group of conferees to a new budget conference committee. The group is charged with producing a plan of action in less than two months (Dec. 13). Meanwhile, former Wyoming U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican, and his partner, Democrat Erskine Bowles, former Clinton White House chief-of-staff, continue their crusade to persuade politicians in the Capitol to figure out a way to decrease federal spending and pay the nation’s bills.
Work on long-term debt
Their message is simple: Washington needs to stop squabbling over short-term spending bills and shrink its $17 trillion debt now. So-called “sequestration,” the fiscal cliff and the current congressional deliberations do not seriously address debt reduction.
Simpson and Bowles became well known after heading an Obama-appointed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which issued a detailed report in 2010. Its original recommendations, presented as a template for a place to start, would have reduced the nation’s debt and deficit while reining in government spending on all of the nation’s programs through both spending reductions and tax hikes.
Unlike sequestration and the debate over the short-term spending bill now under way, the Simpson-Bowles plan also aimed to curb spending increases in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Those three mandatory entitlement programs — highly popular with many groups — represent two-thirds of our federal government’s spending.
Plan ignored for three years
With major political hurdles, the duo’s plan has been ignored by the president and both parties in Washington for over three years. The now $17 trillion federal debt has continued to grow, although its size relative to that of the economy is beginning to decline. A nonpartisan group calling itself “The Campaign to Fix the Debt” was founded in 2010 to support Simpson and Bowles.
Last week, prior to congressional action, in a push-back at Simpson and Bowles, former Obama economic advisor and Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said the shutdown threat and the debt-ceiling crises were more pressing than worrying about the overall nation’s debt and deficit.
America, especially our youngest citizens who represent our future work force, deserves no less than a full-scale effort on the part of Obama and Congress to plan for deficit and debt reduction. The responsibilities of elected public servants would be well served by such courageous, bipartisan leadership.
Kicking the can down the road
While the recent deal delivers the nation from the two fiscal crises for the time being, it only kicks the can down the road once again and really does nothing to address the nation’s long-term budget challenges.
Clearly, the lack of a long-term budget deal has propelled the nation from economic crisis to crisis for most of the past decade. The president and Congress ought to begin now to solve the overall deficit which represents “the elephant in the middle of the table.”
The real work will occur in the next few weeks, to be sure, to accomplish something under the new deadlines, and, we can hope, to achieve over time a more comprehensive fiscal framework — one that begins to actually reduce the deficit, so that the nation does not face further fiscal speed bumps.
Chuck Slocum, president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm, is among 360,718 Americans who have signed the “Citizen’s Petition to Fix the Debt.”
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