Op-Ed: Make a Deficit Deal Now

Washington Post | November 8, 2012

The American people spoke on Tuesday, and they voted for a continuation of divided government. With President Obama at the helm for four more years and a strengthened Democratic majority in the Senate, and with the Republicans decidedly in control of the House of Representatives, both sides may now feel emboldened to pursue their party’s preferences. Rarely has it ever been this clear, however, that elected leaders from across the political spectrum need to come together to address our nation’s rising federal debt.

Unlike previous times, when there may have been many months or even years for officials to continue fighting long-standing policy battles, important decisions need to be made in the next two months to address the “fiscal cliff.” In a way we have never seen before, both sides will have to move beyond contentious electoral politics and come together in the spirit of good governance to replace the abrupt and mindless spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect Jan. 1 with a gradual and intelligent deficit reduction plan.

Though there seems to be broad agreement that we should replace the fiscal cliff with something better, many partisans on both sides seem to think they have the upper hand in the negotiation. Democrats see the threat of large defense cuts and massive tax increases as a way to force tax increases for the rich. Republicans see large domestic spending cuts, tax increases on poor and middle-income Americans and the need to increase the debt ceiling as their own leverage points.

There has even been talk of going over the fiscal cliff to potentially strengthen each side’s bargaining position. Going over the cliff, though, would mean betting the country on the hope that the other side will back down before it is too late. That’s a bet we shouldn’t take. The risk is simply too high.

Going over the fiscal cliff would mean allowing a massive and immediate cut to nearly every major government agency and activity, including those vital to our national security or economic growth. It would mean a large and immediate tax increase on nearly all Americans, not just the highest earners. It would mean a double-dip recession at a time when the economy is still very weak and many Americans are struggling to find work.
But simply punting on the fiscal cliff and continuing to add to the debt would be an even bigger mistake. It would show markets we cannot put our financial house in order. Instead of using this moment as leverage to score political points, our elected leaders should seize the opportunity to finally address the long-term imbalance between government spending and revenue, and to prevent a future debt-induced economic crisis.

What does that alternative look like? We already have the blueprints.

It’s the type of bipartisan package toward which the fiscal commission I co-chaired with former senator Alan Simpson, the Domenici-Rivlin group, the Senate’s “Gang of Six” and the Obama-Boehner negotiations all worked. It’s a package large enough to put the debt on a clear downward path, relative to the economy, and designed well enough to promote, rather than disrupt, economic growth. It’s a package that includes real spending cuts and structural entitlement reforms to make Social Security solvent while slowing the growth of federal health spending while protecting vulnerable populations. And it’s a package that institutes fundamental tax reform that simplifies the code and encourages economic growth by cutting spending in the tax code to reduce rates and generate additional revenue for deficit reduction.

Most important, it’s a package that can get bipartisan agreement. I was very encouraged by House Speaker John Boehner’s remarks Wednesday indicating his willingness to support increased revenue from tax reform if it were accompanied by meaningful entitlement reform. Based on my conversations with President Obama, I am confident that he is willing to do his part to put our fiscal house in order and would support a comprehensive plan based on the general framework the fiscal commission put forward. While there will undoubtedly be many honest disagreements about the specific elements of a plan, I believe that both leaders are willing to make the type of principled compromise necessary to reach an agreement.

Though we won’t be able to enact the entire plan in the few legislative weeks before year’s end, policymakers could agree in the lame-duck session on the basic framework of the deal. Congress could enact a “down payment” of savings from spending and revenue policies, along with a process for achieving the remaining savings by July 4, with enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the promised savings are achieved. Designed appropriately, such a package would be credible enough to allow for a temporary delay of the scheduled sequestration policies and extension of expiring tax cuts.
I am confident that the president and Congress can agree to such a plan. Nearly three years’ worth of work has gone into developing the policies and raising awareness on the need for a comprehensive plan. Members of both parties and both houses understand this. So do concerned citizens across the country — 300,000 of whom have signed a petition at FixTheDebt.org, demanding that Washington act.

The only ingredient missing is political will. Betting the country in the hopes of generating that political will is not the answer. Coming together for the greater good is.

Op-Ed: Avoiding the Fiscal Cliff: Nothing is Sacrosanct

Tulsa World | November 8, 2012

For almost a decade and a half, I was honored to serve the great people of northeastern Oklahoma in Congress. Today, a centrist Democrat in Congress may be about as rare as a polar bear in northeastern Oklahoma, but through my experience as a fiscally-conservative Democrat on the Ways and Means and Budget Committees, I was able to see how much agreement there was between the two parties, and how deals can be struck when there's a common interest. Even in today's climate of hyper-polarization, this remains true, and even for this era's most important issue: the national debt.

Having hit $16 trillion with no signs of slowing, the national debt promises to eat away at your favorite government policy, regardless of your party or politics.

Whether you prefer to maintain spending levels on, say, transportation programs or scientific research, or you're more interested in keeping taxes low, your preferred policy is about to be swallowed up by what we need to pay to service our debt. Unless we act now.

And now really is the time to act. With the "fiscal cliff" - the club-footed combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, $500 billion in 2013 alone - looming come Jan. 1, our political leaders have been given a firm deadline to get something done.

Already, mere fear of careening over the cliff has had real-world implications. Worry over paralysis in Washington has caused businesses to put off hiring and investments. And if we do tumble over the edge, our economy will contract by an annualized 3.9 percent in the first quarter of next year.

Clearly, we cannot let that happen. But in addressing the short-term problems with which our out-of-control debt has confronted us, we must also think long-term. We are perilously close to trillion-dollar yearly interest payments, 7 percent yields on 10-year U.S. Treasury bonds, 10 percent home mortgage rates and 13 percent rates on car loans. For the good of the country, the parties must come together and not let this happen.

Clearly then, we need a debt deal that will steer us away from the precipice of the fiscal cliff while addressing our mounting debt over the long-term.

Any deal worth the paper it's printed on must make sure to treat nothing as sacrosanct. Any promise made to keep a constituency's favored spending program or tax break is short-term thinking; unless we put everything on the table, we will never come close to plugging the hole we're in.

For the last several years, the conversation about deficit reduction has begun and ended with "domestic discretionary spending" or "waste, fraud and abuse." Simply put, there's just not enough of either to make much of a dent in our ever-increasing debt. Instead, we need to look at what each party has previously thought of as its "sacred cow" - spending programs, especially entitlements, for the left and favored tax levels and breaks for the right.

Instead, we need pro-growth solutions - a slowing of the growth in entitlement spending and a simpler tax code that removes many of its economy-distorting deductions, breaks and exemptions. It's this kind of plan I'm hoping to hear from the president, and it's this kind of plan that I know members of Congress from both parties can and will be able to agree to.

I've seen much agreement across party lines when it comes to fiscal issues. And I am optimistic that, even in this age of political polarization, that we'll be able to do so again.

But we'll need your help. Think about adding your name to the 280,000-plus who have already signed the petition at FixTheDebt.org, demanding our political leaders deal with the long-term problems our mounting debt promises to bring us. Our challenges are great, but so too is our ability to come together and confront them head-on.

Op-Ed: Governing After Over-Promising

The Government We Deserve | October 18, 2012

For almost anyone following closely our presidential candidates’ statements, it is absolutely clear that each pledges more than he can deliver. As a result, we must vote for the candidate who can better govern after over-promising.

Consider especially the big three items driving upward the budget deficits: growth in health costs, growth in retirement costs, and the tax cuts that keep passing our bills and related interest costs onto future generations. One simply can’t balance the long-term budget without dealing with these three. Yet both Obama and Romney remain largely silent about what we might have to give up in these arenas for years to come.

Social Security reform? “We can easily tweak the Social Security program while protecting current beneficiaries, ensuring that it’s there for future generations,” President Obama says. “[I am not] proposing any changes for any current retirees or near retirees, either to Social Security or Medicare,” Governor Romney proclaimed at the first presidential debate.

Medicare? The president fights to retain long-run hopes for “well over $1 trillion” in cost savings that he thinks are in Obamacare. But the Congressional Budget Office says that Obamacare raises health costs overall and that any long-run savings are just that, long-run, as well as uncertain. Romney would replace Obamacare and restore additional Medicare-directed spending.  CBO numbers say that simply abandoning Obamacare would add to the deficit since the bill also includes tax increases and other measures that more than offset the health cost increases.

As for premium support or vouchers versus traditional Medicare, the candidates do engage in a debate, but generally over changes that would be phased in at some time long distant from when they need to tackle the deficit.  Taxes? Romney proclaims that his reform would reduce revenues or at best be revenue neutral: “We are not going to have high-income people pay less of the tax burden than they pay today. […] I do want to bring taxes down for middle-income people.” He would also cut tax rates by 20 percent and “keep revenue up by limiting deductions and exemptions,” or perhaps he would do less, if those limits don’t supply enough revenues.  Obama, in turn, holds with his promise from the last campaign for no tax increases for anyone making less than $250,000. Analysis after analysis shows that keeping this promise would entail only modest progress on the deficit.

Discretionary spending? Although not one of the big three drivers of our budgetary problems, both candidates would pare it dramatically as a share of GDP, but their campaigns only  emphasize what they would protect. Obama would invest in education, and Romney now likes Pell grants, though he would give Big Bird some liposuction. Romney says he would somehow maintain a higher defense budget than Obama.

These candidates are not the first to try to tell us how much they will do for us or at least how they will absolve us—particularly the woe begotten middle class—from sharing in any future budgetary fix. Their complication, even compared with previous presidential elections, is that their new promises stack onto an extraordinary and unprecedented number of unsustainable promises already put into law. I understand why they are scared to death to tell us what reforms might really be required; we voters often jump on the honest candidate and, hence, bear some responsibility for what we get. But that means that in deciding for whom to vote, we must speculate on just which pledges either candidate would violate.

Should we prefer the candidate more willing to declare “oops” once elected?

Do we vote for the one whose future contradictions we believe will be less likely to affect our favorite interests?

Do we favor the politician more adept at dissimulating his past statements?

Consider many of the recent budget agreements and systemic reforms that required us to give up something. Reagan abandoned his opposition to removing tax breaks both in the budget agreements and the major tax reform legislation he signed. He also reversed his previously successful efforts to provide zero and often negative tax rates on some investments. Clinton abandoned his pledge for a tax cut soon after being elected. George H.W. Bush famously abandoned his “no new taxes” pledge. And while poor H.W.’s dissimulation efforts were unsuccessful, conservative and liberal pundits still place Reagan and Clinton high in their respective pantheons.

The president is the only elected official who represents all the American people. The office demands a higher order of integrity and just plain arithmetic discipline than does the role of candidate.  In the end, therefore, we probably pick whomever we think better recognizes that the switch from candidate to president is more of a leap than a transition.

Op-Ed: Agreeing on the Debt

The Hill | October 16, 2012

In representing the great people of southern Minnesota for 12 years in Congress, I witnessed my share of partisan skirmishes. But as a centrist Democrat, I also took part in efforts in which both parties worked together to do what was right for the country. We did that in my very first term, when President Reagan found common ground with the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate to pass much needed Social Security reform. Later, in bipartisan fashion, Reagan and Congress fashioned immigration reform and a major tax overhaul and simplification. In my last congressional term, President Clinton led a bipartisan coalition to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (over the objection of some in his own party). After retiring to Minnesota, I watched as Clinton then worked with a Republican Congress to enact a children’s health initiative and welfare reform.

Today there is another critically important issue that requires bipartisan cooperation – our nation’s skyrocketing national debt.

The time is now because we are standing on the edge of the “fiscal cliff.” At year’s end, we face abrupt, nearly across-the-board spending cuts totaling almost $1 trillion over the next ten years. The effect of these cuts is coupled with the expiration of numerous tax policies, including the Bush era tax cuts and the Obama payroll tax cuts. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that if we fall over the cliff come January 1, the economy will contract by an annual basis of 3.9 percent in the first quarter of 2013 – and unemployment will spike. Already, fear of the cliff – and of Washington politicians doing nothing to avoid it – has led to businesses putting off new hiring and investments.

But that’s just the immediate problem. Over the long-term, our national debt – now at $16 trillion – is simply unsustainable. Indeed, our rising debt threatens our standard of living and the resources we will have in the future. Simply servicing the bloated debt will soon lead to annual trillion-dollar interest payments and will eventually result in interest rate hikes that will make it harder for average people to borrow money to buy a home or a car.

Many politicians talk about cutting “domestic discretionary spending” and “waste, fraud and abuse” as an answer to our deficit challenge. But those items are too small a portion of our federal budget to offer a solution. Instead, we need a balanced, comprehensive approach that will look to both sides of the ledger – spending and revenue. And, more importantly, on the spending side we need to focus on the drivers of our debt, entitlement programs. While raising revenue, it is best to also reform our tax code to eliminate or reduce economy-distorting deductions and loopholes. Lastly, the right kind of long-term debt deal must make sure to protect our fragile economic recovery – meaning these large-scale spending and revenue measures must be phased-in over time.

Getting politicians of both parties to agree to a debt-reduction program that accomplishes all of these goals may seem like a herculean task. But my experience tells me it can be done. There is much consensus already in place for what we need to do. The Simpson-Bowles Commission report and the Rivlin-Domenici plan both prove that there can be bipartisan support for a comprehensive approach to this fiscal challenge. With the “fiscal cliff” looming, I truly believe that the petty politics of the moment will soon give way to the urgency of action.

As the Presidential debates continue, I certainly hope that President Obama and Governor Romney lay out concrete plans to address the debt and avert both the near-term “fiscal cliff” and the long-term debt crisis. But if they don’t, voters need to let them – and Congress – know that the time is now for serious action. You can do this by adding your name to the 225,000 who have already signed the petition at FixTheDebt.org, which urges passage of a comprehensive deal to create a short- and long-term fiscal fix.

My own experience in Congress makes me confident that we can get this done.

Op-Ed: Debt Clock Still Ticks On

The Hill | October 3, 2012

Three weeks into the Comeback America Initiative’s almost five-week fiscal responsibility bus tour, it’s clear we have a real showstopper on board with us: a 100-pound, 10-foot-long digital display whose flashing digits tell their own story. This “U.S. Financial Burden Barometer” is a much truer measure of the country’s financial sinkhole than the well-known National Debt Clock, which debuted in 1989 at $2.7 trillion and has since grown to more than $16 trillion. The Burden Barometer makes that stunning number seem like small change: at present, the barometer’s tally is at more than $70 trillion and is growing by $10 million a minute! That’s up from about $20 trillion in 2000.

The Comeback America Initiative created the Burden Barometer to engage voters on the full dimensions of our fiscal challenge and encourage them to pressure candidates for national office to get serious about solutions — or pay the price on Election Day. While the Debt Clock shows our country’s current gross federal debt, the Burden Barometer reflects the federal government’s total liabilities, unfunded promises and other commitments and contingencies.

The $70 trillion figure incorporates liabilities such as publicly held debt; unfunded military and civilian pensions and retiree health obligations; unfunded social insurance promises, most prominently, Medicare and Social Security; and a range of other federal commitments and contingencies, including the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. To arrive at an official and credible tally, we used the figures in official financial statements of the U.S. government and other official government reports, among them the annual Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports and the Congressional Budget Office’s current projected deficit for fiscal 2012.

Clearly there’s creative accounting in many politicians’ assessments of the nation’s fiscal condition — and plenty of demagoguery, too, from partisan and ideological players who want you to think we don’t have a problem or that there are easy answers. Economic growth alone can’t fix our woes and more tax cuts will not pay for themselves. We need to start making tough choices.

If a politician says there’s no need to reform our social insurance programs, don’t believe it. We have to combine Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security reforms, along with other reductions in defense and other federal spending, with revenue increases or the math just won’t add up. In addition, we must rationalize our healthcare promises and focus on controlling costs.

The good news is that serious action, taken soon, can slow the Burden Barometer’s rise, and even significantly reduce the number being displayed. That’s because, unlike the Debt Clock — which won’t drop by a dollar due to fiscal reforms — the Burden Barometer includes present and future spending as determined by our government’s promises and policies. If our elected officials enact meaningful reforms, even if they are phased in over time, the Burden Barometer’s number could instantly go down by tens of trillions of dollars.

Whether that incentive will be enough is an open question. The truth is, our greatest deficit today is one of leadership. It will take political courage and extraordinary presidential leadership that we haven’t seen in the past 10 years to bridge the partisan divide and reach the sort of grand bargain needed to avoid a U.S. debt crisis. But we know this is possible because a number of Republicans and Democrats have already gotten behind nonpartisan solutions that can get bipartisan support.

For example, some within each of the parties have agreed we should change current formulas and premium subsidy models to provide greater support to lower-income individuals and less support for higher-income beneficiaries. They’ve acknowledged the wisdom in reining in healthcare costs by changing the way we pay for medical care — moving away from fee-for-service system and toward “outcome based” payments — and reforming our medical malpractice system. They’ve gotten behind the idea of closing various tax “loopholes” to make the system simpler and fairer, and to generate more revenue. What we need is more elected officials to join them in breaking partisan ranks and putting the interests of the country before the special interests and partisan ideology.

The stakes for our country are huge, and the time for action is now.

Op-Ed: Throwing My Hat in the Ring

The Government We Deserve | October 4, 2012

My fellow Americans.

Grave issues face this country. This year is unlike any other year.  After listening to the Presidential candidates debate, I’ve decided to give Americans a real choice for president: me.

First, a little bit about myself.

I know what it’s like to be poor. My great-great grandfather was poor, so I understand getting by on almost nothing. I can think back to a time when he didn’t even have indoor plumbing.

I know what it’s like to be a minority. I’m a male, and the majority of the population is female. Most people belong to religions other than mine. Only a small share of the population is my age.

But, unlike my opponents, I don’t identify with some narrow subgroup of the population. I support the right of women and men of all races and religions to pursue the American dream––as long as they agree with my policies. Now, one of my opponents has special appeal to female Tibetan Scientologists from Utah, the other to black male lumberjacks living in New York City. That means the rest of you still have a chance to be represented by voting for me.

In today’s troubled world, I know what it is to be a real man who deals with power. Just thinking about putting troops or police in harm’s way exhausts me. Heck, my hair has already thinned and grayed thinking about the sacrifices I will have to endure as the most powerful person in the world. I’ll try to make available some before-and-after pictures for you to see, too, how eight years in the White House will age me eight years. One day, others will testify how they witnessed my bravery when they weren’t out grabbing me another Diet Coke so I could stay awake past midnight in the Situation Room.

And, I know what it’s like to be a woman. My mother was a woman. I know all too well the difficulties of childbirth: I was right there next to my mother when thrown into the spurned class of the bare at birth. Now, as a candidate, I’m not supposed to talk too sympathetically about myself, but my surrogates have put together candid shots of what my mother, if still alive, would have said about my destiny even from a young age. Other women who have known me when I was out in the working world pursuing my destiny while they were taking care of the family will talk about my humanity and dedication to my family.

Finally, I know what it’s like to struggle. At times I’ve even been between jobs. After leaving the presidency, I’ll have to struggle while I decide whether to sit on corporate boards or make millions of dollars writing my autobiography.

But enough about me. Now to real policy for real Americans––that is, those who show their respect for America by voting against my opponents.

First, you. You’ve paid an unfair share of taxes and gotten an unfair share of benefits. You’re not like that rich guy who pays no income tax or the welfare cheat with houses in Malibu and Miami. They support my opponents. But I understand you. If you’re rich, you already pay infinitely more tax than someone with no income with which to pay taxes. That’s not fair. And if you’re poor, it’s clearly because my opponents’ government policies don’t support you enough or don’t give you adequate incentives. That’s not fair, either.

As for the 99.5 percent of you who are in the middle class, my opponents continually tell you how much they care, but they really don’t.  If they did, why do they confine their borrowing from China and other friendly lenders to a few trillion dollars?

Next, jobs. My opponents hire Harvard economists who calculate the expected growth in the labor force assuming that the unemployment rate will decline to about 5 percent. Then each claims that he individually will create the jobs that the economy would normally create. Not me. Under my policies, the unemployment rate will fall to 4 percent, so I will create at least 1 million more jobs than either of my opponents.

To spur economic recovery, I’ve combined the Democratic Keynesian and Republican supply-side economics of my opponents. That means I can spur demand when I provide you more benefits and increase supply when I reduce your taxes. The former will induce people to spend more, the latter will encourage them to work and save more. Under Steuerle-conomics, a dollar of spending and a dollar of tax cuts will together spur several dollars of increased output, while reducing the deficit because of the economic expansion and investment.

And let me thank you in advance, my fellow Americans, for accepting those higher benefits and lower taxes for the good of your country.

As for the budget, I will take whatever increased deficit I might induce and cut it by two-thirds by the end of my two terms. My opponents pledge to cut their additional deficits only by half, and usually for years after they’ve left the White House.

I could go on. For instance, one of my opponents favors healthcare vouchers for the nonelderly and opposes them for the elderly, the other favors just the opposite.  Both my opponents would reduce Medicare benefits, either through vouchers and greater price controls.  I, however, would grant healthcare providers higher incomes and health consumers more benefits than either of my opponents. And it won’t cost existing taxpayers or Medicare recipients a dime. I’ll just create a special form of government debt that will be paid only by future generations not yet voting.

As you can see, I have everything it takes to run for president in today’s world. I simply take today’s campaign strategies to their logical conclusions. Honest deception! That’s my motto.

Op-Ed: Debt Solution Must Be Bipartisan

USA Today | September 21, 2012

In February of 2010, when we accepted the job as co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (often referred to as "the Simpson-Bowles commission"), we thought we were taking on this debt challenge for our grandkids. But the more we examined the nation's financial condition, the more we understood how dire the situation was. We weren't taking this assignment on only for the good of our 15 grandkids, it turned out, nor for our seven grown children. We were taking it on for all of us.

That's how critical this issue is. If we can't get members of Congress to put aside their ultra-partisanship and pull together rather than apart, we face the most predictable economic crisis in history. Fortunately for everyone, it is also the most avoidable economic crisis in history.

During our service on the commission, Members of Congress would constantly come up to us and say "save us from ourselves." All of these elected officials in both parties understand what our nation faces. They know what needs to be done, but fear the political consequences if they make the hard votes to reduce spending or increase revenues.

That is why we have joined with a distinguished group of former public officials, business leaders and concerned citizens to form the Campaign to Fix the Debt. Through this campaign, we hope to help make deficit reduction not only good policy but also good politics, and we are already making progress. Nearly 150,000 citizens from across the country have signed a petition calling on leaders in both parties to work together to find common ground on a bipartisan plan to reduce the debt based on the principles set forth by the Simpson-Bowles Commission.

The Simpson-Bowles commission offered a reasonable, responsible, comprehensive and bipartisan solution that won the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans on the commission. Most importantly, it would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade — enough to put the debt on a clear downward path relative to the economy.

Our plan showed that this problem is too large to cut our way out, it's too large to tax our way out and it's too large to grow our way out. We need a combination of cutting low-priority spending throughout the budget, reforming entitlements to slow the growth of health care spending and make Social Security solvent, and reforming the tax code to promote growth and generate revenue in a progressive manner. As we make these changes, we must be sure to phase them in gradually to protect what is clearly a very fragile economic recovery and to avoid cuts that would harm the most vulnerable in society.

The "fiscal cliff" is the exact wrong way to reduce the deficit. By mindlessly cutting spending across-the-board, letting tax rates go up on everyone and abruptly taking $500 billion out of the economy in nine months, going off this fiscal cliff would throw us back into recession.

Yet continuing on our current path by punting these measures would send a dangerous message to the markets that America is not willing to deal with our debt. Let there be no question in your mind: the fiscal path our nation is on is simply not sustainable. The only responsible course of action is to replace the fiscal cliff with the framework that gradually and thoughtfully reduces the debt over the next decade and puts America's fiscal house in order.

As we travel the country talking to Americans from across the ideological spectrum, we hear the same thing from nearly all of them: they want real solutions, and they want them now. They are thirsting for the truth and bold leadership from their elected representatives. They understand that the problems are real; the solutions are painful; and there is no easy way out. They know they are going to have to give up something, but they are willing to do it so long as everyone else does. Above all, they just want their leaders to lead.

All of us must put aside our individual wish lists and think about what's really important for the country. If we're unwilling to do that, then future generations are going to be in a world of hurt. But if our leaders can agree on a plan to fix the debt, then the future of this country is bright.


Op-Ed: "Congress Leaving on a Debt Plane"

The Hill | September 18, 2012

Members of Congress will return home for yet another recess in the next few days, leaving behind nothing but a swirl of rumors about how they plan to address America’s major fiscal issues.  

Until now, lawmakers seem to have held out hope that voters aren’t paying attention to the particulars of the “fiscal cliff” and America’s out-of-control national debt. Neither party revealed specific plans for dealing with these challenges at their recent political conventions, or since. New stories appear each day in the political press suggesting that lawmakers are preparing to once again punt on the tough choices required to address our looming fiscal crisis.

All of this is status quo political maneuvering. But there are two major reasons to believe that it won’t fly this time around. The writing on the wall about the implications of inaction is getting too bright to ignore, and a well-resourced, national, bipartisan campaign has been launched to take the issues straight to the voters in lawmakers' districts.

Alarm bells about the fiscal cliff are going off with increasing frequency. Last week, Moody’s Investor Service, the major ratings agency, warned that the U.S. could lose its sterling credit rating if Congress doesn’t reach a deal to replace the abrupt, mandatory spending cuts and tax increases that are set to take effect in January with a plan to stabilize and ultimately reduce the debt as a percentage of GDP. A ‘kick-the-can’ solution that simply delays the abrupt tax increases and automatic spending cuts for a few months would leave this uncertainty hanging over an already struggling economy.

Business leaders are also weighing in about the urgency of action. As the New York Times reported last month, “A rising number of manufacturers are canceling new investments and putting off new hires because they fear paralysis in Washington will force hundreds of billions in tax increases and budget cuts in January, undermining economic growth in the coming months.”

It would be a mistake for policymakers to take these cues as a reason to simply institute a short-term fix that avoids the fiscal cliff and tees up another crisis next year. The fiscal cliff is simply a curtain raiser on the bigger issues we will likely face with the debt, including rising inflation, dollar devaluation, disappearing resources for public works, and a growing dependency on China. What we need is to replace the fiscal cliff with a long-term, bipartisan deal on the national debt that alleviates economic uncertainty and increases confidence that our leaders are up to the task of addressing the greatest fiscal challenge of our lifetime. 

This message is starting to be heard more loudly and more clearly across the country. Great credit for the increased awareness is due to dedicated advocates such as former Senator Al Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who championed the idea of an “everything on the table” approach and co-founded the Campaign to Fix the Debt.

Senator Simpson and Mr. Bowles, along with former Republican Senator Judd Gregg and former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, the Campaign co-chairs, have announced that the effort has raised almost $30 million dollars in just over a month, with more coming in, to educate voters and mobilize them to urge lawmakers to get a debt deal done. The Campaign is employing all the tools of modern political outreach, including advocacy in many states and major advertising, media and online programs. 

Already, nearly 140,000 concerned citizens across the country have signed the Fix the Debt petition. A growing number of CEOs and current and former public officials also have signed on to support the campaign at the national and local levels. 

With this broad bipartisan backing, we hope to increase the noise and heat on the debt issue, in order to urge policymakers to reach a deal based on key principles. Legislation addressing the spending and revenue elements of the fiscal cliff needs to be accompanied by concrete steps toward a long-term debt reduction plan that is credible to the public and to domestic and international financial markets. 

Such a plan must be bipartisan and comprehensive, addressing all parts of the budget, including cuts in low-priority spending, reforms of entitlement programs to reduce the growth of health care entitlements and make Social Security financially sound, and pro-growth tax reform which broadens the base, lowers rates, raises revenues, and reduces the deficit. It must also be large enough to stabilize and ultimately reduce the debt, but be implemented gradually to protect the fragile economic recovery and to give Americans time to prepare for the changes in the federal budget. Lastly, the plan should be conducive to long-term economic growth, protect the vulnerable, include credible enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the promised deficit reduction is achieved, and leave the next generation better off.

We are running out of time and rhetoric is of little value at this point. We need action. 

Op-Ed: Don't Delay Fencing Off the Fiscal Cliff

The Hill | September 11, 2012

Washington’s new pet solution to the “fiscal cliff” — the spending sequester and the expiration of tax cuts scheduled to collide in the first few days of January 2013 — is “let ’er rip.” In other words, let the tax cuts expire, let the spending cuts hit — we’ll clean up the mess later. It reminds us of Scarlett O’Hara’s “after all, tomorrow is another day.”

For each political party, this notion is predicated on an expected sweep — House, Senate and White House — in the November elections. The prevailing mindset is, “when we take control next January, even though it is after the scheduled train wreck, we’ll fix it all our way — and the other side can’t stop us.”

However, this gamble assumes the use of two legal, but economically and socially dangerous, mechanisms to circumvent the automatic tax increases and spending cuts. Mechanism 1: Even though the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts will expire on Jan. 1, the Treasury Secretary can simply leave income tax withholding unchanged, preventing taxpayers from immediately feeling the effect of elevated rates. Mechanism 2: The president’s budget director can continue to supply government agencies with cash in the same amounts that they would have without the sequester, delaying the spending reductions until later in the year. 

As the logic goes, if the incoming president and Congress can then change the law and undo the “fiscal cliff” in early 2013, the taxpayers and the federal agencies can just continue on that path laid out in January by the Treasury secretary and the budget director.

 But consider how perilous this high-stakes gambit really is. Both Republicans and Democrats agreed to the sequester’s automatic spending cuts because they knew that the federal government must cut its deficit by at least — and really much more than — the amount of those reductions. Since then, however, the president and Congress have avoided any action that truly lowers the future accumulation of debt. They cannot now simply continue to kick this fiscal hand grenade down the road; they cannot postpone budget savings forever. Temporary budgetary gimmicks provide no solution; they just put off January’s pain by risking much greater pain later in the year.

 And if either party does control the government, and does “let ’er rip,” action must follow early in the 113th Congress. We have watched extremely critical legislation fall apart in the thicket of congressional procedure, no matter how committed a majority of members might be. 

 A narrow congressional majority can disintegrate on a particular issue if a small faction within that majority realizes that it can demand a price for going along. If either party plays games with the expiring tax cuts and the sequester, and then its majority falls apart when it actually tries to change these laws, tens of millions of taxpayers will wind up under-withheld and owing big tax payments at the end of the year, and federal agencies will face massive furloughs to avoid overspending when their fiscal year ends. That will not only directly disrupt the economy and abruptly slash the take-home pay of millions of Americans, but it will also send a chilling signal throughout the world that the U.S. federal government cannot manage its own affairs.

Finally, if the election yields continued divided government, the “let ’er rip” tactic devolves into a potentially catastrophic game of chicken. Can the new government agree to undo the temporary mechanisms and provide at least an outline of a fiscally responsible plan before the taxpayers’ under-withholding and the agencies’ under-funding is exposed, and before markets implode because of all these shenanigans? If not, this will yield nothing but wreckage.

The president and Congress can avoid this wreck. Doing so will involve hard negotiations and a budget process that bridges the post-election lame-duck session and the 113th Congress. 

We have developed this process, which would force congressional committees in the House and Senate to meet savings targets established by the budget committees. We are well aware that Congress suffers from process fatigue after the failures of the past 18 months. But coming to grips with the need for another new budget process is just one more challenge that will have to be overcome if this nation is to remain exceptional.

We are not naive. Politics will be played. But the players must look ahead to the endgame before they bet the entire country — and that is what they will do if they continue to “let ’er rip.”

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