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By Miriam Raftery

July 22, 2011 (San Diego) –Just how tough is it to balance the federal budget? While Congress wrestles with the issue on Capitol Hill, a roomful of ordinary citizens got the chance to find out on Tuesday, when Congresswoman Susan Davis’ office sponsored a workshop at San Diego State University to get constituents’ inputs on budgetary priorities.


I planned to go as a neutral observer. But since our table was short one participant, i found myself recruited for a lively and enlightening session. Creative minds proved adept at thinking outside the box—challenging conventional wisdoms, expanding the choices presented for cutting costs and raising revenues, plus citizens came up with some innovative ideas of their own.


If only Congress could work together this way, instead of being polarized across a bitter partisan divide!

My tablemates (most of whom wanted only first names published) were Keith, a teacher, Peg Ford, an activist who recently lobbied Congress for ovarian cancer research funding, Roy and Kenn, both retirees, and Jerry, who said he came because he didn’t have a good grasp on the budget.  Kenn impressed us all with the research he'd done, actually bringing in a copy of the entire federal budget with detailed line items!

Congresswoman Davis had planned to lead the session. But because Congress was called into special session over the federal debt crisis, she sent a video message instead. “You experience tough decisions every day,” she noted. “My challenge to you right now is to see if you can balance the federal budget.”

Though Davis is a Democrat, our table included divergent views that led to some heated exchanges. We were given handouts provided by the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization committed to reducing the federal deficit. A Concord representative pointed out the federal debt rose from $1 trillion in 1980 to $13 trillion today. (Multiple wars, tax cuts under Reagan and Bush, stimulus spending under Obama, a declining manufacturing base as jobs move overseas, and the recession have all fueled the rising debt.)


Concord’s handouts listed various options for cutting government expenses and helpfully showed how much each one would save. It also presented a few revenue raising choices. But even the handout proved controversial. “This is a push poll,” one constituent at another table complained.

Keith informed us, “The founder of Concord Coalition is the number one funder of hedge funds. They’re basically all for tax cuts.”

I noticed a glaring omission on Concord’s handout. “Why isn’t ending the Iraq or Afghanistan wars on the list?” I asked.

Janet Ryan with the Concord Coalition shrugged. “We can’t include everything,” she replied. She pointed out that there were some options for cutting Defense spending on our list. But those targeted cuts to specific weapons systems or worse, benefits for our military members.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, half of the projected public debt in 2019 will be due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (11.9%), along with the Bush-era tax cuts (37.5%). [A fifth of the total is attributed to the economic downturn, while all of President Obama's recovery measures combined account for less than 9%.]

Our table unanimously agreed to end the Afghanistan War. We also easily agreed to repeal Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, though we would retain Bush tax cuts for the middle class. (Congress, by contrast, has supported phased withdrawal of troops for a lesser savings; however the Republicans who control the House have blocked Democratic efforts to end Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthy, instead calling for deep cuts in Social Security and replacing Medicare with vouchers for buying private insurance. Our table strongly opposed the latter.)

But other issues proved thornier. Some people were willing to trim entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, others weren’t. Should we slash funds for energy research, or high speed rail? While no one wanted to end mortgage deductions, some were willing to lower the axe and end agricultural subsidies. A debate ensued over whether to cut National Institute of Health funding, with our cancer survivor passionately arguing to spend more, not less on cancer research.

Many in the room were shocked to learn that creating a market for “capping and trading” greenhouse gas emissions could save nearly $1.2 trillion. “I’m not sure if I believe in global warming, but if it will save that much money, let’s do cap and trade,” a man at another table observed.

Jerry asked, “Why do we have to balance the budget without raising taxes?” Options such as closing loopholes for companies that offshore assets were not on the table. But others were opposed to new taxes.

Roy’s line-item budget revealed an array of other options not listed on our handouts, which for simplicity’s sake included primarily the most major expenditure items. For instance, under agriculture, the only money-saving choice we were given was to eliminate agricultural subsidies. Roy listed off a range of other things the Department of Agriculture spends money on—such as marketing agricultural products overseas, forestry (including our National Forests), school lunch programs and more.

Kenn called for a 10% cut across the board to all agencies. “Let each agency head figure out what needs to be cut,” he said. He persuaded the majority at our table to agree, though Jerry objected. “I’m against brainless cuts,” he argued, suggesting that government should instead “figure out what you want, and then decide how to pay for it.” I took a middle ground, feeling that some agencies could probably handle a 10% cut, though I would spare education, Medicare, and certain others.

Keith expressed fears that agency heads would slash funds for programs that help those who are most under-represented in government. Whereupon Peg proposed a creative solution. “We need panels of citizens, ordinary people, to advise each agency head on cuts,” she said. Corporations could have a seat at the table too—but they would be outnumbered by citizens.

“People in Washington listen to corporate interests,” Roy said, raising a concern that everyone at our table shared.

“They actually have corporate interests that make the legislation,” Keith noted.

Peg said the “power in those halls” was palpable when she was in the Capitol during her recent visit—and she, too, voiced fears over the power of corporations.

Most folks in the room proved remarkably unselfish, as other tables rose to discuss their decisions. A pensioner was willing to raise the age limits for Social Security benefits if it would help reduce the national debt. A military veteran said he supports a strong defense, but believes there’s room for cuts in Defense Department spending.

All agreed that if budget decisions could reflect the will of ordinary people instead of special interests, our country would be better off.

Participants thanked Davis’ staff for setting up the budget workshop, and all agreed it was very informative.

“One thing that’s apparent here is that we are not really a democracy,” said Dick, a speaker from another table. “We are a republic, a representative government –and Susan does that very well for us. If she would like some of us to continue meeting with her, we would be glad to do it,” he concluded, adding pointedly, “and we would not charge for our services.”

Can you balance the federal budget? ECM recommends first studying several such exercises and tools from all sides of the political spectrum. Here are a few to get you started:

Concord Coalition Federal Budget Challenge: http://www.federalbudgetchallenge.org/budget_challenge/sim/budget_master...


Origins of Projected Public Debt (provided by Democratic Majority based on data from the Center for Budget Priorities and Policies): http://www.sddemocrats.org/PDF/debt.pdf?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=TH...


Cato Institute (a conservative think tank): Downsizing government: http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/


Budget Hero (budget balancing game from American Public Media): http://blog.onbeing.org/post/7684820353/your-morals-and-ethics-behind-ba...

Federal Debt Limit: You Choose Who Gets Paid (Washington Post): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/federal-debt-limit...