Sunday, March 31, 2013 | 2:02 a.m.
With no deal in sight to curb our growing national debt, America is going broke. So what do our representatives in Congress plan to do about it? Take a two-week break. Are they trying to see whether their abysmal 13 percent approval rating can sink any lower?
I get it. Spring break shouldn’t just be for students. Adults work hard, too. But usually, a “break” follows a period of “work.” And not much can be said of the 113th Congress’ accomplishments so far.
Indeed, it has been more than two years since the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission declared a so-called moment of truth: “We cannot play games or put off hard choices any longer.” Yet that is exactly what Washington has done and continues to do.
It kicked the can down the road after the fiscal commission made its recommendations in 2010. Then, in 2011, when the nation came to the brink of defaulting on its obligations over battles about raising the debt ceiling, President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, struck a narrow deal on spending cuts but punted the tough budget choices to a congressional committee.
After just a few months, this committee announced it couldn’t reach an agreement and set the clock ticking on the across-the-board cuts known as the sequester. Most recently, when confronting the “fiscal cliff” of scheduled tax increases and spending reductions, Washington once again did the bare minimum, raising tax rates on the wealthy and letting the sequester take effect.
We recently pushed back another debt ceiling deadline without addressing the underlying problem of unsustainable deficits. Yet Congress is scheduled to be out of session for nine weeks over the next five months. And even when it’s supposed to be in session during that period, the House isn’t scheduled to meet for a full five-day workweek.
Although Washington has managed to enact several trillion dollars in deficit reduction as the country lurched from one unnecessary crisis to the next, the job is far from finished and the most important issues remain untouched. To set a sustainable financial course for the country, Congress and the president must replace the sequester with a larger and more generationally balanced deficit reduction agreement of at least $2.4 trillion that couples meaningful changes in entitlements with pro-growth tax reform.
Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan of the House Budget Committee and Washington Democrat Patty Murray of the Senate Budget Committee, to their credit, each released proposed budgets that recognize the need for reducing the deficit. But neither proposal has a chance of winning support from the other party, and they each tackle only half the problem. Ryan’s budget, for example, doesn’t ask for a dime in revenue increases, while Murray’s budget doesn’t go nearly far enough in achieving savings from entitlements.
Instead of going their separate ways home, lawmakers should stay together in Washington, find common ground and get a real deal done. John Hilley, who helped strike a balanced budget with a Republican Congress as President Bill Clinton’s legislative affairs director in 1997, nailed it when he wrote: “Bipartisanship is not the absence of partisanship; it is partisans coming together to reconcile their competing political and policy objectives.” What we need is some true bipartisanship.
Both parties have bridged the gap before, and it’s time to do it again. That will require, as did the 1997 deal, a number of elements: commitment to a common goal, open communication between all stakeholders, an understanding of what each side needs out of an agreement and, perhaps most important, leaders who can put the country’s interests ahead of their own.
For any of that to happen, though, legislators will have to be in the same place.
Until a deal is reached that addresses the nation’s mounting debt, lawmakers should stay in Washington, hunker down and figure it out. No more trips, breaks, vacations, recesses, “constituent work weeks” or whatever you want to call them. They should just do what we elected them to do: legislate.
Nick Troiano is co-founder and national field director for the Can Kicks Back, a nonpartisan, millennials-driven campaign to fix the national debt. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.