A common mistake in politics is letting the perfect become the enemy of the good and the achievable. That has never been truer than with the deficit reduction debate in Washington.
For much of the past four years, I’ve been urging the president and both parties in Congress to pass a comprehensive deficit reduction plan — a grand bargain — that reforms our tax code, preserves our safety net programs and cuts billions in wasteful and duplicative spending. My ideal plan, as outlined in my Back in Black report, would be in the ballpark of $9 trillion in savings, which is twice what was recommended by Simpson-Bowles ($4 trillion) and more than the $2 trillion figure that is being discussed today.
I still believe such an agreement is both necessary and possible. The barrier has been, and continues to be, a lack of leadership in Washington. If the president, in particular, had the political will to pass a grand bargain, it could happen.
Unfortunately, that isn’t likely in the near term. If Congress and the administration follow their usual pattern, they will do nothing until the next crisis is upon us, which will most likely be hitting the debt limit late this fall or early winter.
Yet, there is no reason members of Congress in both parties should wait on the next crisis. We can work together and take action where we agree. We can begin to pass bills, one by one, each with bipartisan support, to begin chipping away at our $17 trillion debt, $1 billion at a time.
One logical starting point is President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget. His budget — while flawed — does include almost half a trillion dollars in deficit reduction proposals and entitlement reforms that I support and believe many other Republicans could support as well. From discretionary program eliminations and defense spending reduction to Medicare changes and federal retirement reforms, the president and many Republicans agree on a long list of changes that could save taxpayers more than $435 billion over the next decade.
Many of my colleagues feel the same way and are eager to take action where we agree. Here are a few concrete steps Congress could take.
Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Angus King, I-Maine, have introduced a reform in the president’s budget that would prohibit individuals from “double dipping” unemployment benefits and disability benefits. This common-sense reform could save taxpayers more than $200 million annually.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and I have introduced a bill expanding on an item in the president’s budget that asks wealthy seniors to pay a little more for their Medicare premiums. At a time when seniors on Medicare on average receive $3 in benefits for every $1 they pay into the program, linking premiums to income is the right thing to do, particularly when the program is going bankrupt. The president’s similar proposal could save up to $50 billion over the next decade.
The president’s budget also proposes using a more accurate way to adjust Social Security benefits and other federal payments for inflation. This proposal could save $230 billion over 10 years.
Also on the president’s list is possible savings of $5.8 billion over 10 years by making long-overdue adjustments to the fees civilians and military retirees pay in the Tricare health care system.
Finally, among many other proposals, the president’s budget outlines billions in savings from the discretionary budget. From reducing funding for Interior’s National Heritage Areas and the EPA’s Diesel Emissions Reduction Program, to eliminating duplicative workforce programs at the Department of Labor, the president’s budget includes dozens of reductions to discretionary programs that would save taxpayers $10 billion.
The American people have seen that the easiest thing to do in Washington is nothing. That isn’t good enough anymore. The American people want us to act now. If Congress took action on these items, we wouldn’t solve our debt and deficit problems but we would be making progress.
While I’m going to continue to fight for a grand bargain that will help our economy grow to its potential, I’m not willing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and the doable. The president’s budget contains billions in savings that should prompt bipartisan action today.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.