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Congress Should Adopt Mark Warner Budget Strategy

Sen. Mark Warner is best known at the moment for being one of the “gang of six” — the three Democrats and three Republicans who have been trying to come up with a bipartisan deficit reduction plan in the Senate. But long before the Virginia Democrat helped start the group, he was known as a fiscally conservative governor who received high marks for turning the state deficit that he inherited into a surplus.

Warner once told me that he was able to make budget changes in the state because Virginians saw his efforts as serious attempts to make the government less costly. Some changes, such as greatly reducing hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles and requiring that many transactions be conducted online, got big headlines when they forced people to deal differently with the DMV.

But voters respected the cuts when it became clear that they could still do what they needed and that the reductions were having the desired effect on the state’s bottom line. It also set the stage for less popular changes, such as revenue increases, because there was a general recognition that the cuts had gone far enough.

As the debate in Washington, D.C., on a long-term federal deficit reduction plan continues to stall, the strategy that Warner used as governor — put in place cost savings that change how government does its work, rather than what it does — may be one of the best, and perhaps only, options available to Congress and the White House this year.

This will disappoint some who want to immediately enact a big fix — a combination of spending and revenue changes needed to eliminate the deficit. In particular, tea partyers in the House and Senate are likely to criticize Warner’s strategy as a trifling effort that kicks the budget can down the road and isn’t worth the time or energy needed to do it.

First, that’s not necessarily true; significant savings (although not enough to eliminate the deficit) can be adopted this way. And given the lack of support for the sweeping budget plans that have already been proposed, this may well be the only option that can get done this year.

If you doubt that’s true, think about what has been put on the table so far. The plan that the Bowles-Simpson debt reduction commission came up with last December has all but been forgotten. Neither chamber of Congress has been able to produce a comprehensive budget that is anything other than symbolic. There has been tepid interest in President Barack Obama’s initial budget request, and the deficit reduction outline that the White House announced last month hasn’t gained any traction. The gang of six has yet to come up with anything, and there is a great deal of uncertainty about how many others will support it even if it does. And there are tremendous uncertainties about whether the budget talks begun last week by Vice President Joseph Biden will succeed.

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