The least glamorous but most important part of the agreement that reopened the government last week is the creation of a 29-member committee charged with making recommendations regarding an immediate budget and a long-term plan to reduce the national debt.
The committee is bipartisan, composed of Democrats and Republicans from both the House and Senate, and it is required to present its report by Dec. 13.
Auspiciously, the committee membership is diverse, with politicians from across the ideological spectrum. That fact makes more likely both the possibility of the development of a worthy set of balanced recommendations and the adoption of those recommendations by the full Congress.
The committee is headed by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. Other members are: U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. That sample already illustrates the broad range of perspectives that will need to be reconciled.
The committee is focused on crafting annual budgets, as well as a long-term blueprint — maybe 10 or more years long — designed to begin a path toward better, more sustainable fiscal health for the nation. Near-term budgets and the fiscal profile of the government in the distant future are, of course, closely related, and one should not be considered without the other.
Congress has been trying for about four years (or more) now to create a master plan to address both the tax code and government spending. The Wall Street meltdown and subsequent recession have complicated the effort immensely because, naturally, it is more difficult to reduce government spending — and thereby lay off employees and end government contracts — when times are tough.
That is because — again in tension with debt reduction — there is some recession-fighting benefit to bolstering the economy by carefully increasing government spending in areas where it could foster employment, supplement private investment, or build public works and infrastructure to bulwark businesses and communities.
Nonetheless, the country needs a long-term plan to address our unsustainable spending. Such a plan would be comprehensive and would contain alterations to the tax code, gradual reductions in specific programs, and appropriate increases in certain revenues or taxes.
It is important to note one likely characteristic of any feasible plan. Mathematically — and given political realities — it can be pretty well established that any 10-, 20-, or 30-year blueprint to reduce our overall debt must almost necessarily include both spending cuts and revenue increases. That circumstance may not please those who oppose any new taxes whatsoever, or those who resist any social-program cuts whatsoever, but it is hard to imagine Congress adopting a plan that contains only one of those parts.
Politically, nothing less will fly. It is highly unlikely that any one ideological purity could prevail — even if it were wise. That is part of why the budget committee is so important. If its diverse, but manageable, group can seize the opportunity, admit the inevitability of compromise — from all blocs — and put forward a short- and long-term budget proposal, Congress as a whole might just be able to stomach it.
Each committee member, and Congress, can know right up front (today) that the final proposal will be inevitably flawed, incomplete, contain errors in judgment, have unintended consequences, be an ideological hybrid and produce mixed results. But if it cuts spending, raises revenue and points us toward fiscal health, and if it does that with a semblance of fairness, then Congress should be prepared to accept it.
Recent previous efforts at Congressional budget reconciliations have failed. In 2010, the Simpson-Bowles commission did good work but ultimately disintegrated. In the fall of 2011, the deficit-reduction “supercommittee” also stalemated. This time, primed by growing public understanding of the issues, perhaps the new committee can make the hard, imperfect choices that await it.
Watching the unrestrained divisiveness in Congress and within the American citizenry during the past four years has been incredibly painful. The national anger level reminds me of the bitter divisions that rent families and friends during the Vietnam War. This is seriously unhealthy for the populace and the economy. The widespread vitriol and fear and constant uncertainty are placing both tangible and intangible costs on us personally and on our work endeavors.
Americans of all political stripes should urge the bipartisan committee and our political representatives to support the goal of crafting a reasonable compromise budget and blueprint. We should acknowledge that this hard work will test, above all, our emotional capacities. If we can acknowledge that, we are making a tacit admission that our political positions derive not from facts alone. And that understanding makes compromise both possible and palatable.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.