Short-term improvements in the federal government’s finances have led to widespread complacency in Washington about fiscal reform.
But a panel discussion this week highlighted the continuing need for such reform, with former members of Congress lamenting the sharp political divisions within the two major parties as well as between them that hinder constructive change.
“We have a fiscal challenge which is really a political challenge which really is a societal challenge. . . .the two parties are more polarized than ever before,” said Evan Bayh, a former senator (D-Ind.). “The Democratic Party has moved further left, the Republican Party has moved even further right.”
Mike Castle, a former congressman (R-Del.), sounded a similar theme, noting the pressures faced by moderates in both parties. “The Congress of the United States,” he said, “is a difficult place.”
The panel discussion took place in Washington on Wednesday night, when The Concord Coalition honored Senators Dick Durbin and Tom Coburn with the 2014 Paul E. Tsongas Economic Patriot Award.
Joining Bayh and Castle for the panel discussion were former senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), former House member John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert L. Bixby.
Castle and Tanner are Concord’s co-chairs, while Bayh and Gregg serve on the organization’s Board of Directors. Lori Montgomery of The Washington Post was the panel moderator.
Tanner said the U.S. Constitution requires “sane, sensible, principled compromise to work.” He added: “What we’ve got is not working.”
Bayh said the bases of the two parties are so deeply suspicious of each other that principled compromise -- once viewed as an act of statesmanship -- is seen by many almost as an act of betrayal.
In addition, moderates in both parties face internal challenges. Castle noted the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently by a primary challenger who said Cantor was not conservative enough.
On the Democratic side, Bayh said he expected more primary challenges from the left to moderate incumbents in the future.
Deep concern was expressed about the gerrymandering of House districts so that they more strongly favor one party over the other -- and put added pressure on moderates.
Gregg described this as a “core systemic problem.” Tanner said that as a result of gerrymandering, “the political kill zone is now in the middle.”
All this has made it difficult for Washington to get much done, particularly in terms of broad changes to deal with the nation’s fundamental fiscal and economic challenges.
“What I am more concerned about than anything is the lack of urgency by not only the public but by the politicians and the office-holders on these issues,” Tanner said.
He warned: “We cannot keep doing down this fiscal path of borrowing the amount of money we are borrowing to finance our consumption in this country.”
Castle said that important government priorities like research and transportation are already being badly squeezed.
“There are bridges that have collapsed (and) other bridges that are in danger of that,” he said. “There are highways which are crumbled. . . . there’s a litany of these things.”
Castle said young people in particular should be paying attention to such funding shortfalls because “things are not happening that should be happening,” and they can expect to eventually suffer the consequences.
Bayh suggested that more Americans need to remember what those who lived through the Second World War long understood: “We have a common destiny. We are in this together.”
Gregg emphasized the need for strong leadership from the executive branch. He said that if the president shows that he is willing to “step on the toes” of some of his constituencies, the other party is more likely to do so with some of its constituencies.
If Republicans win the Senate later this year and maintain control of the House, Gregg said, there might be an opportunity for progress on fiscal reform.
“At that point they can no longer afford not to govern . . . ,” he said. “Once you control half the government, people expect you to govern.” So Republicans would need to make an attempt to reach “ an accommodation” with Democrats on at least some major issues.
As for Democrats, Bayh said many of them are starting to better understand the need for changes in the big entitlement programs because their costs are crowding out other Democratic priorities like education, health care, environmental protection and medical research.
Durbin, though not on the panel, had offered a similar observation while accepting his award earlier in the evening.
Bixby said the pending insolvency of Social Security’s trust fund for Disability Insurance within the next couple years could provide an opportunity for needed fiscal repairs.
“That is something that Congress is going to have to deal with -- some piece of legislation affecting Social Security is going to have to pass the Congress.” If that doesn’t happen, the system’s disability insurance checks could not go out -- the sort of thing, Bixby noted, “that gets constituents’ attention pretty quickly.”
Looking towards the next presidential election, Bixby suggested that the candidates consider this perspective:
“In effect, the debt is your running mate. It’s going to be with you when you are elected, and you are going to have to do something with it. . . . Because no matter what issue you are interested in -- tax reform environmental protection, education reform, defense, national security -- you are going to have to come back to the budget, where priorities are set, dollars are committed. And you’ve got this problem, and it’s going to have to be dealt with.”