Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Last week the 113th Congress was sworn in. While newly elected members of Congress are still finding their way around the House and Senate office buildings and hiring staff, they are expected to get right to work on the major fiscal challenges facing the country. Here's hoping they use common sense in addressing the problems we face with some clarity and humility we didn't see from the 112th Congress.
More than anywhere else I can think of, Congress is no place to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Absolutely we want our elected representatives to strive for the best outcomes they can get for taxpayers, but given the vast differences in priorities and ideologies of sitting Members of Congress, there is no legislation that looks perfect to all 535.
So what to do in the face of this gridlock?
- Don't hold out for the grand bargain. By all means, if a comprehensive tax, entitlement, and spending reform package develops that solves all of our problems, can survive open debate, pass both chambers, and makes it to the president's desk, I certainly won't be the one to stop it. But recent history tells us that this is even harder than it sounds. Don't leave us all holding our breath.
- Get back to basics. The tax, spending, and entitlement policies that have helped us rack up $16 trillion in debt each have their own complexities—so take each area one at a time. Congressional committees were set up to allow smaller groups to dig into problems, hear from outsiders in a public forum, and debate the pros and cons of proposals before making recommendations to the full House or Senate. Don't let the committee process be theater of the absurd by inviting only witnesses that will ding the other party and reinforce preconceived conclusions. Let the process work as a way to identify what areas of agreement may actually exist, compromise where needed, then move forward and try to persuade the rest of Congress.
- Do what you can. Stay in the game. Don't hold the debt ceiling or any other individual legislation hostage in order to meet another goal. Keep moving forward. While voters will be disappointed if the only thing this Congress accomplishes is the elimination of a single tax break here and a wasteful spending program there, small progress is better than no progress. And it might just lead to something bigger.
- Let the sunshine in. Backroom deals are never good for taxpayers. Voters have a right to understand the details of the difficult choices Congress is grappling with, and exactly who is in the room and influencing the outcome of these negotiations.
I'm not suggesting any of this will be easy. What gets candidates elected to Congress is often their ability to galvanize people with soaring or scathing rhetoric and skills that don't always go along with the nuanced reasoning and civil, diplomatic negotiating skills needed to make sound legislative deals. But it is necessary. We can't afford another do-nothing Congress. We need to make government work.