A new anti-deficit initiative launched Wednesday gave itself a difficult goal right out of the gate: travel the country and convince Americans of the importance of long-term deficit reduction. Representatives of the "Fiscal Solutions Tour," sponsored by the Concord Coalition and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, said that only by getting citizens to persuade their legislators to act would they generate enough momentum to bring about serious change.
(The Concord Coalition and Peterson Foundation receive funding from financier Peter G. Peterson. Peterson separately finances The Fiscal Times, an independent digital news and opinion service.)
"The main reason for engaging the public is that whenever you have any huge social and economic problem, it's not going to change, nothing's going to change, without public demand, without public understanding, without a public attitude that things have to change," said Bill Novelli, a former CEO of AARP, who is among the evangelists who will travel to six cities in the coming months carrying the anti-deficit message.
From there, the public has to convince lawmakers of both parties to get behind some nonpartisan solutions, the advocates say. "Large reforms … cannot be done on a partisan basis," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin a Republican former director of the Congressional Budget Office. " Partisan reforms are bad policy. They don’t have the best ideas of both sides in them, so they are intellectually incomplete. And they don’t have broad-based support, so they're quickly unwound because they're partisan in nature."
"You need to make the political pain associated with doing nothing, which Washington has become very adept at, greater than the political pain of doing something that may involve some tough choices in the short term to create a better future," said David Walker, CEO of the Peterson Foundation.
Polls show that up to 60 percent of Americans say that reducing the deficit should be a top priority. But 69 percent say they wouldn't pay higher taxes to do it, and 62 percent say they're not willing to accept cuts in health care or education. Only 7 percent say that Social Security or Medicare should get lower funding than they do now.
Anti-deficit advocates are quick to point out that Americans are much more receptive when the problems and potential solutions are explained in detail. Most people support raising the eligibility age for Medicare, for example, and increasing the cap on income subject to the Social Security payroll tax.
As the economy stumbles along and partisanship in Washington looks likely to worsen, part of the group's challenge will be pointing out that action on long-term deficit issues need not get in the way of addressing short-term economic problems. Holtz-Eakin said that given the gridlock in Washington, he's not concerned that Congress is in danger of slashing spending before a turnaround takes hold.
"You cannot lose money betting on congressional inaction," he said. "I have never worried that any Congress would move so quickly as to endanger the economic recovery."
Visit the Debt Watch home page here.