4 Things for Budget Negotiators to be Thankful For

The two sides might seem far apart, but there are reasons for optimism.

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Cloudy skies shroud the Capitol on Nov. 21 in Washington.
A new poll shows Republicans have a lead over Democrats on the generic ballot -- good news for the GOP, which is hoping to take back the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections.

For those of us who work in Washington, D.C. and regularly engage with Congress, it can be hard to remember what we have to be thankful for these days. Listening to Congress, you hear story after story about how the other party is setting the stage for the downfall of society by advancing policies that are somehow un-American or stand in the way of critical progress.

Amidst this uncomfortable and unpleasant political atmosphere, a bipartisan, bicameral conference committee is meeting to hammer out a fiscal year 2014 budget deal to responsibly fund government and put the country's finances on track. That's what they're supposed to be doing anyway.  But even in the face of a $17 trillion debt, the initial statements of the conference committee co-chairs, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, make it look like progress will be hard to come by.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

So this Thanksgiving week I wanted to take the opportunity to remind the budget committee and the rest of Congress of some of the things we have to be thankful for in the hope that it will spur them to overcome their entrenched political differences and move forward. If they don't come to an agreement, on January 15, 2014 the continuing resolution funding government expires and lawmakers will likely once again kick the can down the road. The current three month continuing resolution funds government at $20 billion more than the level set by the Budget Control Act of 2011. If that level is extended, the across-the-board cuts of sequestration will kick in. So there's a lot riding on this budget conference.

  1. While the task at hand is challenging, it is doable.  The budget conference committee is charged with closing the more than $90 billion gap between the Senate's $1.058 trillion dollar budget proposal and the House's $967 billion budget proposal.  While the ideological gap is wide, there are areas of agreement.  Republicans agree that some tax breaks are wasteful and should be eliminated, Democrats agree that some government spending can be cut or made more efficient.  Both sides agree that certain fees can be increased – like airline travel security fees, or premiums military retirees pay for their health benefits, premiums that have effectively not increased in years.  
  2. There are lots of ideas out there about how to bring spending and revenues closer to balance and break the habits that have left us on such an unsustainable path.  At Taxpayers for Common Sense we found more than $2 trillion in deficit reduction last year when we were trying to help Congress avoid sequestration.  And of course there was the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (better known as Simpson-Bowles), the Domenici-Rivlin initiative, and many others. So instead of lines in the sand, lawmakers need to line up the solutions.
  3. Small steps will help. For the time being, deficits are coming down, and the rate of growth of the debt is slowing. This has been achieved through a combination of factors. There are increased tax revenues from economic growth and allowing some of the 2001 and 2003 tax breaks to expire. There is also reduced spending as some of the spending provisions of the 2009 stimulus expired and the initial reductions in spending as a result of the Budget Control Act. Even if the budget conference committee is able to come to agreement on responsible offsets on a smaller scale, it will help put the country on sounder fiscal footing and help restore Americans' faith in our ability to govern ourselves.
  4. Most people want you to work together and find a way forward. A recent poll by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation found that a majority of Republicans would support tax increases and a majority of Democrats would support entitlement reforms as elements of a long term fiscal deal. If the public is willing, so should be Congress.
  5. [See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

    In the midst of political battle, it can be difficult to focus on the positive. But is precisely at those moments when we need our leaders to come together. This Thanksgiving, let's hope that the budget conference committee can show us a way forward.

    Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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