Opinion

The Great Debate

If only Congress were less ambitious

By David Gordon and Sean West
The opinions expressed are their own.

There’s a good reason that only paid staffers and blood relatives seem to approve of Congress, as Senator John McCain recently quipped. But it is not the simple reason that Congress continues to fail, as witnessed in the implosion of the supercommittee. Rather it’s that Congress continuously promises unachievable historic fixes when it should instead be focused on slow progress.

There’s nothing wrong with small-scale fixes when they are the best achievable outcome. Congress is hyperpolarized and both sides are fighting for a mandate to reform the entire economy in line with their competing visions. As underwhelming as the August debt limit deal was, in the current political environment, saving over $2 trillion one way or another was a positive result. The fact that Congress could agree to something this large this year is actually quite stunning.

Failure – and the ensuing loss of respect in the eyes of voters – is largely due to leaders on both sides pretending that massive overhauls are in reach when they clearly aren’t. The problem is that Congress isn’t content to just do its job — it can’t help itself but to overpromise and then underdeliver.

During the debt limit debate, voters were treated to a roller coaster ride of epic proportions: One day Congress was going to cut $4 trillion from the debt, the next day the US government was going to default. In March, Congress was going to let the government shut down unless historic spending cuts were put in place. Both situations were manufactured crises that were created with the promise of forcing historic fixes. Neither did.

The supercommittee demonstrates the danger of playing this game. Members spent way too much time pretending they were going to do something historic — trading $3 trillion plans back and forth — instead of simply working on the $1.2 trillion task before them. Failing to reach $1.2 trillion looks that much worse to the public because Congress continuously talked about achieving much broader taxation and entitlement reform.

We won’t save money by cutting education

By David Callahan
The views expressed are his own.

Nearly every day, if not every hour, some politician proclaims that taming America’s budget deficit requires “hard choices.” Strangely, though, few talk about perhaps the toughest dilemma facing the supercommittee, and the rest of Congress: How to reconcile the needs of old and young Americans.

Both groups have urgent and growing claims on the public purse. Four million seniors live below the official poverty line and millions more hover just above that line – contrary to the popular image of well-heeled retirees. And because the Baby Boom generation hasn’t saved nearly enough for retirement, such hardship is likely to get worse. Deficit hawks talk about cutting Social Security benefits and limiting Medicaid payments for nursing homes, but the truth is that seniors will need a more generous safety net in coming decades than what the U.S. now has.

Meanwhile, a new report on the “State of Young America” by Demos (where I work), argues that America is way under-investing in the next generation. Too many young people who graduate from our under-funded public schools aren’t ready for college and can’t earn a living in today’s low-wage economy. Those who do go to college often can’t afford to finish their degrees, and debt among college graduates has soared to record levels. Young adults trying to start a family also struggle with sky high costs for childcare, housing, and healthcare. At the same time, median earnings for young adult men with college degrees have barely budged since 1980.

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