WITH ITS membership now complete, the congressional super committee charged with fashioning a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan has a genuine opportunity to make progress on the nation’s fiscal problems. But to do that, members need to resist the temptation simply to retrench behind old battle lines. Instead, they should use this opportunity to educate themselves and the country on this difficult topic. The recent debt-ceiling debate showed that many Americans - and even some members of Congress - are understandably confused by the federal budget.
How the deficit was created and how it is best solved are both complex subjects. The matter is further complicated by the difference between the annual deficits of the last few years, which have been driven largely by a sagging economy and temporary anti-recession spending, and the projected long-term budgetary imbalance, whose various causes include revenue loss from the tax cuts enacted since 2001, plus entitlement-program costs for the retiring baby boomers.
In its first month, the committee should hold hearings to listen to fiscal experts of all ideological stripes. One hearing should focus on the experts’ best estimates of what created the short- and long-term deficits. The panel should hear from - and question - former directors of the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget, as well as analysts from the liberal Brookings Institution and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the centrist Concord Coalition, and the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation. Those who contend the long-term deficit is mostly a spending problem should be asked to backstop their conclusion. Those who think it can be solved without paring entitlements should be asked to demonstrate how that can be done.
Committee members should also explore the consequences of possible solutions. For example, Americans need to know what the effect of a no-new-taxes approach would be on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, as well as on domestic discretionary spending. Those who contend that only taxes on upper earners should rise should be asked to specify how high those rates must go to prevent the need for more revenue from the middle class.
The panel should also explore the effects of raising different types of taxes. Would it, for instance, make better sense to add a national sales or value-added tax rather than raise income tax rates on couples who make more than $250,000 but less than, say, $350,000 a year?
The hearings could provide a real service to voters. Given a clear picture of budgetary reality, Americans might decide they prefer to keep income tax rates lower and are willing to receive less in future benefits to make that possible. Conversely, they might conclude that the country’s entitlement programs are important enough to justify paying more taxes.
No committee members, experts, or grass-roots political activists should resist having their budgetary assumptions examined and critiqued. Such a process would not only result a better-informed electorate, but it would also improve the chances of committee members rethinking preconceived notions in pursuit of common ground.