Op-Ed: Debt Reduction--The Voters Are Ready. Is Washington?

CNN Money | April 11, 2011

They did it! They kept the government open! Tourists can still see the pandas. Hooray!

The White House is trying to spin this as another in a growing list of across-the-aisle joint successes. Like the budget busting tax deal in December, where policymakers of both stripes came together in agreeing to borrow close to $1 trillion from their kids to cut taxes for every taxpayer they could find.

Please. Heralding this as a success is like cheering me on at the office for handing in my taxi receipts. Late.

This was kabuki theater at its worst and it bodes poorly for the real issue at hand: getting a long-term budget deal in place.

Meanwhile, I spent Friday safely well outside the Beltway at a budget forum in Colorado that featured a group of concerned citizens and a long list of impressive budget experts such as Alice Rivlin, Alan Simpson and Gary Hart.

The state's two senators -- Michael Bennet and Mark Udall -- were scheduled to join us. Both are committed to working on a budget deal and wanted to engage their constituents in the process. Unfortunately, at the last minute, they got stuck in Washington dealing with the preposterous fight over the 2011 budget.

At least they were able to join us by Skype and BlackBerry. And, most importantly, the day provided a true "adult conversation" about the nation's fiscal crisis.

Congress needs to know these folks are ready for the real work to begin. Here are some lessons from the day.

Put everything on the table: There was a widespread understanding that a deal would have to include all parts of the budget -- from defense, to health care, to Social Security, to other spending, to taxes.

The problem is large enough that it will require changes in all parts of the budget and a comprehensive fix creates a sense of fairness that we are all in it together.

Pay for what you spend: The basic principle of "pay go" -- if something is worth doing, it is worth paying for -- struck participants as so clearly the right thing to do, it got a spontaneous round of applause.

People want tax reform: There was significant interest in how to reduce all the targeted tax breaks, exemptions, deductions and exclusions that clutter up the tax code and make April 15 one of the most angst ridden days of the year.

House GOP budget: There were a lot of questions about the new budget put out by Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman.

Ryan's budget aggressively reduces the deficit, transforms our health care system and reduces spending on programs for the poor.

My sense is that it is a bold and courageous budget and impressive for being so, but that by leaving some parts of the budget off the table -- notably any tax increases -- it has to cut other spending so aggressively that it's just not realistic. As such, it detracts from the pressing issue of what we can do this year to get a long-term fix in place.

We need budget fail-safes: Interest is growing -- as faith in the political system is declining -- in finding ways to build into the budget automatic triggers to make sure that promises about future changes are enacted and that budget reform stay on track.

I think this is an important idea that will help be the glue that makes any budget deal stick.

Voters are ahead of many politicians: While I wouldn't say there was universal agreement on anything, the day's discussion made clear that voters are really ready to get something done.

The people are willing to make sacrifices as long as they are part of a budget that truly fixes the problem and in which they believe they are treated fairly. If only politicians would follow the lead of the general population instead of the extremes of their parties.

What next? Can we take those lessons and apply them to the immediate challenge of getting a long-term budget deal done?

Congress has to pass a budget fix this year. If we wait until next year, the risk is too great that either markets run out of patience, or the election season turns into a terrible battle where promises over more tax cuts, and what programs never to cut, cement all the candidates into impossible positions.

President Obama is expected to make a big speech on the topic later this week. He should explain that this must be one of the top national priorities and create a forum where he and Congress come up with a plan. Frankly, they should not move on to other issues until it has passed.

Judging from Friday's forum, the people of Colorado are ready. Are the nation's politicians?